A Referendum or a Choice

The new economic numbers and the trend in presidential approval bring us to this point: Barack Obama is on the cusp of becoming the underdog in the 2012 election.  The outcome of the debt ceiling debate will not change this.  In fact, the outcome is likely to make things even worse for Obama.  A default would likely create economic chaos, and any deal will cut government spending, which seems likely to reduce economic growth further.

Elections are primarily referendums on the incumbent president (even under divided government).  A weak economy hurts Obama.  He cannot deflect the blame.  The game plan for the Republican nominee is simple, at this point: talk about the economy.  Full stop.

The best Obama can hope for is to turn the election into a choice: “Okay, maybe you’re not so keen on me, but do you really want…That One?”  He must find the issue(s) that make him more palatable than his opponent.  At this point, the best he can hope for is to tag the opponent as an extremist—either because the nominee is something of an ideologue, or because Obama can link the nominee to Eric Cantor or Paul Ryan or the Tea Party Caucus or Republicans in Congress generally.

The basis of that campaign message will likely be taxes and spending.  Taxes: “They favor the rich.  We don’t.”  Spending: “We all want to cut spending and get our budget under control, but they want to cut too much.”  In the latter, entitlement programs will figure prominently.  This message is not implausible.  It reflects real differences between the parties.  It reflects GOP positions that will be difficult for the Republican nominee to disown.  And it places Obama closer to the average voter than the nominee.  Indeed, even if Obama signs off on cuts to Medicare and Social Security, his position will be closer to the average voter’s than is, say, Paul Ryan’s.  Like Jon Bernstein, I think Obama could still campaign on this issue.

If the election plays out this way, it will mimic the argument of Lynn Vavreck’s The Message Matters (a book I’ve noted before).  Then, what can we expect?  Based on Vavreck’s study of the 1952-2000 presidential elections, the out-party’s campaign strategy is crucial: if they successfully capitalize on a weak economy or, in times of economic growth, successfully locate another issue to campaign on, then they are expected to win an additional 6 points—even controlling for the actual state of the economy and casualties in war.  Hence the title of her book: the message matters. In this sense, the 2012 election is the GOP’s to win or lose.

Can Obama successfully compete with a Republican who campaigns on “jobs, jobs, jobs” while the economy is in a near-recession?  Modern presidential campaigns offer only two examples of incumbent presidents in this situation: Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush.  Unlike Carter, Obama will be buoyed by the loyalty of Democratic voters and by a whopping amount of money to spend.  That helps.  But finding the issue that neutralizes a weak economy is hard.  Neither Carter nor Bush could.  I don’t know whether Obama will.

14 Responses to A Referendum or a Choice

  1. Andrew Thompson July 29, 2011 at 9:49 pm #

    I disagree. The GOP base will not nominate a moderate. They will smell blood and nominate an extremist. And yes, the economy sucks, but Americans don’t blame Obama for it – as the cause of it. Yes, they are unhappy with how it is, but they know under whose leadership it got that way, and they know he’s been swamped with opposition to anything – even tax cuts(!!) – that would help the economy. Further, what help will the eventual GOP nominee suggest? Less regulation? Pretty vague. Less taxes? For people unemployed, they don’t pay taxes!

    Remember, 600,000 more registered Dems in Florida, and a lot of those are Dems who refuse to see Obama defeated. Florida is game, set, second term. The economy IS getting better in Central Florida, and blacks and hispanics are not suddenly going to throw their lot in with whatever gay-hating, tax-cutting, Obama-is-the-devil nominee the GOP throws up there. Sure, Romney looks good. Now. When no one, not even Obama, is throwing stones at him. Just like the GOP base refuses to compromise on a massive WIN for them in the House, primary voters will equally not settle with someone, like Romney, who has been wishy-washy at best as to whether Obama made the recession worse.

    Same with Ohio. Voters there HATE their new tea-party governor. They are going to defeat an anti-union bill, and they know who saved hundreds of thousands of jobs with the auto-bailouts – not Romney, who said they should drown. Not Pawlenty or Bachman or Palin. But Obama.

    And, in case you are looking for an issue that neutralizes a weak economy – well, there’s a freshman Congresswoman in a staunchly Republican district who has an answer for you.

    • Chris July 30, 2011 at 11:14 am #

      Andrew, wake up dude. It’s 2011. You must be addicted to TMZ

    • AXB July 30, 2011 at 8:15 pm #

      This is just wishful thinking. Did you even read the thoughtful blog post above your response? It made explicit note that the reason Obama is now the underdog is where his approval ratings are. If Americans don’t blame Obama, as you say, why are his approval ratings sliding? I love to read solid non-partisan analysis and it really bugs me when people jump in with responses based only on their partisanship. The post is not saying that Obama will lose, only that he is falling into underdog territory. That’s a well-substantiated claim at this point, but is far from definitive.

  2. P July 29, 2011 at 11:11 pm #

    For the 20% of the population who are out of work or underworked, this economy is a frightening place: burning through savings, staring foreclosure in the face, worrying that the middle class life they worked so hard to create is slipping through their fingers. I don’t like the GOP, but if I hear one more word about “tax breaks for corporate jets” out of Obama’s mouth I swear to God it’s President Huntsman for me. Obama is a great communicator on most things except, for some reason, the economy. He just doesn’t seem to be able to talk about the economy in terms that are real and compelling.

    • Chris July 30, 2011 at 11:18 am #

      P, obama is a great piece of crap. Ya digg?

  3. Daniel Tarrant July 30, 2011 at 1:12 am #

    This election is going to be a cakewalk for Obama.

    Why? Because the guy is the greatest campaigner in American history. He’ll make mincemeat out of any of the clowns on the current GOP ticket.

    • Chris July 30, 2011 at 11:19 am #

      Dani, you are stupid.

  4. LFC July 30, 2011 at 1:16 am #

    “A weak economy hurts Obama. He cannot deflect the blame.”

    From reading John Sides now and then, I have gotten the impression that there is a solid body of poli sci research showing that voters blame incumbent presidents for the state of the economy, regardless of whether the state of the economy is entirely the incumbent president’s fault, partly his fault, or not his fault at all. In other words, the research by specialists in U.S. politics shows that U.S. voters are by and large incapable of forming discriminating judgments about the degree of an incumbent president’s responsibility for the state of the economy. Since even experts can disagree about the relative contribution of factors largely or partly beyond the president’s control (e.g., global economic forces and trends, private-sector decisions in response to them, initiatives by the opposing party, etc.), that is not, on one level, too surprising. On another level, however, it doesn’t paint an especially flattering picture of the ‘average’ voter. I wonder how the average voter would respond if she or he knew that specialists in U.S. politics have apparently devoted a lot of effort to proving that U.S. voters are, to put it bluntly, not too bright.

  5. The average voter July 30, 2011 at 8:52 am #


  6. Karl Trautman July 30, 2011 at 10:07 am #

    The inner dynamics of the GOP presidential race in 2012 will be fascinating, and important, to watch. The GOP can’t escape at least a measure of internal party democracy. In fact, it is on full display with the votes and debates on the debt ceiling crisis. Expect to see similar dymamics later this year and into 2012. The result: President Obama and his campaign trying to constantly compare his views and presidency with the views of the GOP.

    A bright spot for Obama’s re-election is this dynamic. If 2012 turns out to be a season of public ideological soul-searching for the GOP, then those divisions will help him, assuming that he is not seriously challenged for renomination.

  7. Chris July 30, 2011 at 11:22 am #

    obama has no shot. Ask the millions of Americans he lied to.

  8. db July 30, 2011 at 6:27 pm #


    Love your logical arguments.

  9. PJR July 30, 2011 at 6:41 pm #

    Assuming no default, which would cause another recession, it’s not clear that economic performance will be bad enough to make Obama the underdog. Today, Brad DeLong reports “Macro Advisors projects 3.1% real GDP growth over the next four quarters, then rising to 4.0% real GDP growth for the second half of 2012.” Economists appear to judge that drag on the economy by the Boehner or Reid bills will not be large during the first year-plus because so many of the cuts are back-loaded (and, btw, therefore subject to change by the next Congress). Even if 3-4 percent growth is optimistic, I suspect the slow growth will continue and suffice for Obama unless he faces a very strong challenger.

  10. KC July 31, 2011 at 10:24 pm #


    I don’t know what you’re talking about. Obama didn’t lie about anything. He may not have met all of his promises, but no president ever does. And just look at the crazy kind of opposition he has had!! Plus, I think it is ill informed to believe that he is Jesus and could “fix” the economy in under four years. Bush destroyed it in eight years; Obama needs at least that many years to try to repair the damage. I know that I’m voting for Obama in 2012. And I suspect the rest of the American people will too.