On sabbatical, Campbell still contributes to political conversation

Portrait of James Campbell

Political scientist James Campbell is on sabbatical this semester, but his expert analysis and commentary is showing up in news media worldwide. Photo: DOUGLAS LEVERE


Published September 6, 2012

“When an economy is this bad for this long, previous incumbent presidents have been in serious trouble, but the race this year still looks like a toss-up.”
James Campbell, SUNY Distinguished Professor, Department of Political Science

James Campbell is on sabbatical on an island off the coast of Maine. But with the presidential election now in full swing, his analysis and commentary on the campaigns are showing up in news media worldwide this election season.

Although he doesn’t hide his own political point of view, Campbell, UB Distinguished Professor in the Department of Political Science, says he honestly doesn’t know yet what’s coming.

“When an economy is this bad for this long, previous incumbent presidents have been in serious trouble,” he says, “but the race this year still looks like a toss-up.”

When it comes to the House races, Campbell’s models indicate that the Democrats are likely to pick up a few seats, but that Republicans should retain their majority in the House.

“The close presidential election this year means that there are unlikely to be long coattails for either presidential candidate,” he says, “but Democrats should regain some seats that they lost in the Republicans’ wave election of 2010.”

Campbell knows whereof he speaks. He is one of the nation’s foremost experts on election modeling and is nationally recognized for his research on campaigns and elections, voting behavior, political parties, election forecasting and American politics in general.

He is at home this summer on Peaks Island off the coast of his hometown of Portland, Maine, but he is not just sitting back and enjoying the sunshine. Since the end of July, he has been quoted in The Los Angeles Times, Sabato’s Crystal Ball, The Washington Post, The New York Times, BBC and Reuters, and his analysis has shown up regularly this summer in op-eds for major publications and in a host of political blogs.

In addition, he is editing a symposium on election forecasting for PS: Political Science and Politics, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Political Science Association. The symposium will be online in September and in print in early October. There already is considerable press interest in the issue, including a request from Newsweek for an embargoed copy.

Campbell has a full speaking schedule, as well. He was scheduled to present a paper on election forecasting at the 2012 annual meeting of the American Political Science Association (APSA) in New Orleans, but Hurricane Isaac cancelled the convention. He is, however, still scheduled to give talks at Iowa State University, the University of Toronto, the University of Oklahoma and the University of Georgia.

He also will participate in a panel at the 2012 conference of the Northeastern Political Science Association in Boston in November and there are talks under way about a special APSA-sponsored panel on election forecasting at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

In late fall, his article “The Presidents’ Economy: Parody and Presidential Party Performance” will appear in Presidential Studies Quarterly and in January, he will present the plenary address to the American Politics Group of Great Britain’s Political Studies Association at the University of Leicester.

How does he do all this while watching the polls, the speeches and the public response to everything the presidential candidates are up to?

“I’ve had to put some things on the back burner—particularly my book on presidential ratings,” Campbell says. “I started it a couple of years ago and earlier this summer I extracted a paper from it for publication in a journal, but plan to get back to it as soon as the election is over.”

Campbell says he will be ready to make his formal prediction of the presidential election right after the close of the Democratic National Convention. In addition to the presidential election forecast, he also developed a model to forecast congressional elections. His “seats-in-trouble” forecasting model for House elections was highly accurate in predicting the 2010 midterm election.

Campbell acknowledges that he is a Republican. “Everybody’s something,” he says, “and if they don’t tell you what their views are, it doesn’t mean they don’t have any. This is why I believe that social scientists need to rely on statistical analysis of objective and publicly available data as much as possible.

“If my forecast indicates that candidate X is likely to win, it does not mean I want that candidate to win,” he says, “it’s the data making the forecast. I predicted Bill Clinton would win in 1992 and 1996. That’s not the result I was personally hoping for.”

This year Campbell clearly lays out the economic challenges President Obama faces in winning re-election.

“I’ve never been a fan of Mitt Romney’s,” he says, “but he certainly has a good chance of winning, although at this point, it isn’t easy to predict.

“In his favor is the economic outlook,” he says, “some of which can be linked to Obama’s economic policies, which haven’t led to a stable increase in the economy. As an incumbent in this situation, Obama will have to convince people that things are improving and will continue to improve in the future.

“We know Obama used stimulus packages to ramp up the economy, but they didn’t really work as well as he expected,” Campbell says.

“The Democrats said we needed a greater stimulus package, but the Republicans in Congress refused to go along, claiming his plan was making things worse,” he says, “and they are still fighting about it.

“Romney wants to draw back on regulations, let the markets settle out and stabilize the tax policy and institute a more pro-growth energy policy. Obama wants to increase regulations, particularly on financial institutions and carbon-based energy producers, support specific markets and institute a more progressive tax policy.

“Given the economy and the history of past presidential elections, Romney should have a significant lead at this point. But, as I said and we all know, the polls say otherwise. Still, Republicans have a very good chance,” he says.

“It will be very close.”