Ray Fair, a fine Yale economist, has the best economic model for predicting the outcome of presidential and congressional elections. The model has the virtue of simplicity, weighting incumbency, length of time a party holds the Presidency, and news about the economy on growth and employment relatively shortly before election. It has not been perfect in predicting each party’s share of the two party vote, but it has been good–good enough to be taken seriously outside the academy. The New York Times in fact devoted a whole interview to him, sadly marred by the seeming inability of the interviewer to understand why, Fair, despite being a Democrat, used his model to predict a Republican victory!
But the relative success of his model makes one doubt how strong is democratic accountability for the economic performance of government. Few, if any economists, would say that the news about growth and unemployment shortly before an election is a good proxy for that party’s economic stewardship. Business cycles are not in the control of the government. And perhaps more importantly, the most important policies a government undertakes likely take longer than a few years to bear fruit. Thus, the tax cutting policies of the Reagan era may be largely responsible for the prosperity of the Clinton years as businesses and people invested more.