Sometimes the poll numbers really do count

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Andy Murray might have been making a political point in winning the US Open tennis. The last time a Brit managed that was Fred Perry in 1936, which happened to be a US presidential election year in which a Democratic incumbent – Franklin Delano Roosevelt – was running for a second term in the face of unemployment well over 8 per cent against a Republican with six letters in his last name, Alf Landon. If that doesn’t suggest a Barack Obama victory over Mitt Romney in November, I don’t know what does.

There are a gazillion supposedly foolproof theories predicting election outcomes. They are devised by economists, econometricians, mathematicians, political scientists, pollsters, stock market analysts, online Irish gamblers, psychiatrists, personal trainers, water diviners and smart phones – especially Apple’s. The height and left-handedness of candidates, not to mention hem lines, have been adduced as factors. There is probably an ancient tortoise in Meridian, Mississippi, who has got it right since George Washington’s time. And they all sound plausible, until proven wrong.

I claim no omniscience in this matter but the iron law post-FDR was that if an elected president seeking a second term took an economic downturn in the first two years of his first term followed by a measurable recovery, he would win. That would seem to favour Mr Romney, except that the US economy, while hardly flourishing, is not as bad as it was.

That, at least, is the current stock market view. Sam Stovall, of Standard & Poor’s, says that if the S&P 500 index is higher on October 31 than on July 31, whichever party holds the White House will retain it. That has been true in every election since 1948, apart from 1968. On July 31 this year the US benchmark index closed at 1,379.32 points, at the time of writing at 1,463.93. At the same time Ben Bernanke of the Federal Reserve and Mario Draghi of the European Central Bank are pulling out the stops – a boost for Mr Obama with seven weeks to go.

Another long unbroken streak of getting it right was baseball’s midsummer All Star game between the National and American Leagues, first played in 1933. If the National League wins, the elected president seeking a second term gets back in, regardless of whether he is a Republican or a Democrat. That happened in 1936 (FDR, also in 1940 and 1944 but third and fourth terms do not count), 1956 (Dwight Eisenhower), 1972 (Richard Nixon), 1984 (Ronald Reagan) and 1996 (Bill Clinton).

That appeared to come to an end in 2004, when the American League won, as did George W. Bush. But if you believe he did not really win in 2000 (he got fewer national votes and the Florida recount was blocked) and was handed the presidency by the Supreme Court, then that result should probably be marked with an asterisk, which is what baseball’s record books are filled with already, reflecting longer seasons and, presumably soon, the steroid era. And this year’s All Star game was won by the National League.

If baseball is the national pastime, then so is going to the movies. Here patterns, as judged by the annual Oscar best film award, are more subtle, but often indicative about a presidency. For example, the 2000 winner was Gladiator, which presaged W’s wars, and in 2004 Million Dollar Baby, a harbinger of mounting debt. Another Clint Eastwood film, Unforgiven, took the prize in 1992, precisely forecasting the Republican attitude to Mr Clinton, culminating in impeachment, for daring to take away the presidency after 12 years. The English Patient, in 1996, might be seen as a singular American commentary on his failure to reform healthcare.

Notably appropriate were Mr Nixon’s two Oscars, in 1968 to the music of Oliver, about a thief, and in 1972 to the Godfather, about a criminal enterprise, aka Watergate. Likewise Lyndon B. Johnson, whose wife was Lady Bird, danced to the tune of My Fair Lady in 1964. Jimmy Carter might have fancied comparisons with Rocky in 1976, when he won, but was reduced to Ordinary People four years later, when he lost.

This year’s Oscar went to The Artist, about a silent movie star who does not speak until the end of the film – a good idea for this year’s interminable campaign – but I leave it to you to decide whether Mr Obama or Mr Romney has the greater artistic sensibilities and knows when to say the right thing at the right time (not, I fear, Mitt). On the other hand, it is French.

Finally, the length of a candidate’s last name is a cyclical indicator. From 1932-60, the man with the most letters won, thanks mostly to the six victories chalked up by the poly-syllabled Roosevelt and Eisenhower. That was followed by the era of the shorter-named from 1964-72 and the confusing years, Carter v. Reagan, Bush. v Gore, when candidates boasted the same number of letters. The trend since 2004 has been back to the shorter name, which gives Mr Obama, with five letters, the edge over Mr Romney with six.

Not claiming omniscience, I am wide open to all suggestions of more reliable indicators, including from the owner of that tortoise in Meridian. Email is preferable to snail mail, unless it is signed by Mr Murray.

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