Election-Year GDP: Now and Then

Photograph by Ty Wright/Bloomberg

Welders in Columbus, Ohio.

Written by Chris Middleton and Mike Dorning

With a second-quarter GDP reading today of 1.5 percent, President Barack Obama officially presides over the weakest spring economy going into a November presidential election since Jimmy Carter in 1980. Things did not go well for Carter in his re-election bid.

The post-Carter general election-year low was 1.3 percent, reported for George W. Bush four years ago. Carter’s nearly 8 percent GDP contraction was the worst quarter in any campaign going back to 1948.

At least one projection model today suggests that Obama still can expect to win 50.5 percent of the vote in November, with today’s report of GDP growth of 1.5  in the second quarter.

“This sort of slow-growth region puts it in the too-close-to-call category,” says Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta and developer of the forecasting model, which also factors in presidential job approval.

Looking at the last 16 presidential elections, there may be a couple of exceptions to the notion that solid spring and summer GDP data favors the incumbent or his party’s candidate.

Bill Clinton beat Bush despite sturdy readings of 4.3 percemt and 4.2 percent favoring Bush. The twist then was that those figures were originally reported as 1.4 percent and 2.7 percent, respectively, before being revised upward massively well after the election.

In 1968, Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey inherited good growth from Lyndon Johnson — 7.0 percent in Q2 and 2.8 percent in Q3. Yet political issues overrode economic factors, as Johnson opted not to run again in the face of anti-Vietnam war protests.

Obama’s GDP numbers won’t be great. He might be best served to hope for 1956 all over again, when Dwight Eisenhower was returned to the White House amid signs of a slipping economy.



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