What’s happening in the economy now will have a big effect — perhaps, a decisive one — on the presidential election and control of Congress in 2024.
To a remarkable extent, the economy is what matters to voters, so much so that one long-running election model relies on economic data to produce accurate predictions without even considering the identities, personalities, popularity or policies of candidates, or the strategies, messaging or dirty tricks of their campaigns.
Right now, that model, created and run by Ray Fair, a Yale economist, shows that the 2024 national elections are very much up for grabs.
The economy is strong enough for the incumbent Democrats to win the popular vote for the presidency and Congress next year, Professor Fair’s projections find. But it’s not a slam dunk. Persistent — though declining — inflation also gives the Republicans a reasonable chance of victory, the model shows. Both outcomes are within the model’s margin for error.
It means small shifts in the economy could have an outsize influence on the next elections. That could put the Federal Reserve in a hot spot, even if the central bank tries to avoid it.
The Fed strives to be independent. But policymakers’ decisions over the next 12 months could conceivably decide the elections.
The Fair Model
Professor Fair’s pioneering U.S. elections model does something that was fairly radical when he created it in the 1970s.
It analyzes politics without really considering politics.
Instead, Professor Fair focuses on economic growth, inflation and unemployment. With a few tweaks through the years, he has used economics to analyze elections since 1978, based on data for elections going back to 1916.
What he’s found is that the economy sets the climate for national elections. The candidates and the political parties must live within it.
Professor Fair makes his econometric models available on his website as teaching tools.
“I encourage people to plug in their own assumptions and see how that will change the outcome,” he said.
Professor Fair doesn’t even try to predict final election results. Just for a start, he doesn’t do state-by-state tallies or electoral college projections, or examine the potential impact of third-or fourth-party candidacies.
But what his model does extremely well is provide a standard, historically based framework for understanding economic effects on the popular vote for the two main American political parties.
What the model is showing is that the economy’s surprisingly strong growth and low unemployment since the start of the Biden presidency have already helped the incumbents considerably, while the uncomfortably high inflation levels during the period have helped the Republicans. Based on the history embedded in the model, if these critical economic factors shift, there’s room for a decisive change in the popular vote. But probably not much room.
The Inflation Effect
There was jubilation on Wall Street over the past week over the positive news about inflation. The overall Consumer Price Index for October dropped to 3.2 percent annually from 3.7 percent the previous month — and from a peak, in this business cycle, of 9.1 percent in June 2022. At the same time, core inflation, which excludes fuel and food prices, fell to 4 percent in October, the smallest increase since September 2021.
Inflation is still running well above the Fed’s target of 2 percent, but it’s declining, and traders are assuming that, at the very least, Fed officials won’t need to raise interest rates at their next meeting, in December. And there’s more.
The Wall Street consensus, which is captured by the futures market, is that further encouraging inflation news will be coming, and that the Fed will start lowering rates by the spring. The sooner the Fed acts, this thinking goes, the more likely it is that a significant increase in unemployment — and a full-blown recession — can be avoided.
There are political implications.
Because interest rate cuts have lagged effects on the economy, the sooner such cuts occurred, the more likely it would be that the economy surged before next year’s election. An increase in economic growth in the first nine months of an election year — without a spike in unemployment — would help the presidential incumbent’s party, Professor Fair’s model shows. (If Republicans controlled the White House now, strong economic growth would help them more than it does the Democrats, history and the Fair model suggest.)
On the other hand, a decline in inflation won’t help the Democrats much at this stage, Professor Fair said, because high inflation has already been baked into the vote prediction — and, presumably, into voters’ consciousness. The model averages the first 15 quarters — or 45 months — of a presidential administration, and we are already in the 11th quarter of the Biden presidency.
For the overall inflation effect to diminish considerably, the basic math requires actual sustained deflation — a continuing fall in prices — in the months ahead. Historically, that has only happened during major economic declines, accompanied by soaring unemployment, as was the case in the Great Depression. A major recession would probably mean a Democratic debacle next year.
A Looming Nightmare
But a major recession in the next 12 months is not the consensus view among economists or in financial markets.
Instead, a more benign prospect beckons. The probability of a “soft landing” — a decline in inflation without a recession — has grown in most forecasters’ estimations.
But for the political outlook and for the Fed, the timing is tricky.
A growth surge that is not accompanied by a big increase in unemployment would help the incumbent party, and large rate cuts by the Fed might well set off more economic growth. But the Fed will be reluctant to start reducing interest rates while inflation is still above 3 percent. Instead, as long as inflation is high, the Fed has vowed to keep interest rates “higher for longer,” and, in effect, it already has.
Since July, short-term rates have stayed above 5.25 percent, mortgage rates are still above 7.5 percent and consumer borrowing is straitened. The longer this goes on, the greater the chances of a calamity in the financial system. Yet if the Fed eases interest rates too soon, and sets off another wave of inflation, the damage to its already tarnished reputation as an effective inflation-fighter would be severe.
So the Fed is in a difficult spot.
If the central bank doesn’t start to lower interest rates by the summer, it could be reluctant to do so at all in the autumn, because it would inevitably be seen as taking a partisan stance.
As Ian Shepherdson, chief economist of the research firm Pantheon Macroeconomics, said in an online discussion, “there’s a lot hanging on the timing” of the inflation data in the weeks ahead. If the inflation issue isn’t resolved soon, he said, we will have to deal with “the nightmare of whether the Fed wants to be starting a shift in the policy cycle as the election approaches.”
Incumbent presidents always want the economy to look great on Election Day. The one case in which it is well documented that a president put pressure on a Federal Reserve chairman to cut rates — and the central bank did so — involved President Richard M. Nixon and Arthur F. Burns in late 1971 and 1972. Mr. Nixon didn’t limit his improper actions to browbeating the Fed. There was also the Watergate break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, and the subsequent cover up. An investigation revealed the secret White House taping system — which recorded Mr. Nixon’s rough treatment of Mr. Burns.
But there is substantial evidence of other instances of presidents and their emissaries trying to influence the Fed, without success. President Donald J. Trump repeatedly berated the current Fed chair, Jerome H. Powell, for not lowering rates sufficiently. President Lyndon B. Johnson bullied William McChesney Martin to the point of physically manhandling him. And Paul Volcker revealed that, in President Ronald Reagan’s presence, James Baker, the chief of staff, told Mr. Volcker that the president “wants to give you an order”: Don’t raise rates as the 1984 election approaches. Mr. Volcker said Mr. Reagan looked on silently.
In an oral history, Mr. Volcker said the meeting occurred in the White House library, not the Oval Office, probably to protect the president. “Whatever taping machines they had were probably not in the library,” Mr. Volcker said. “I didn’t want to say that we were going to raise rates,” Mr. Volcker recalled, “because we weren’t so as near as I can recall, I said nothing.”
Mr. Powell has said he considers Mr. Volcker to be a role model. Generous and forthcoming in private conversations, Mr. Volcker was sometimes taciturn in public. It will be wise to emulate that reticence at critical moments in the months ahead.
The Fed needs to be seen as independent and tough, and to squelch inflation, as Mr. Volcker did. Then, quite likely, it will need to cut rates aggressively to help the economy.
The calendar may not cooperate. The tougher the Fed is now, the more delicate its position will become as the election approaches.