The Blame Game

The economy seems to be weakening, and Republicans are eager to blame Obama.  This is by-the-books political messaging: the party opposing the incumbent president should talk about the economy when its weak.  But the success of the attack, as Steve Kornacki notes, may depend on whether Obama really gets the blame for the weak economy.

To this point, more Americans have blamed George W. Bush, during whose tenure the recession and financial crisis began, than Barack Obama. This was true in a series of Gallup polls between July 2009 and September 2011.  For example, in September 2011 69% said Bush deserved “a great deal” or “a moderate amount” of blame.  Just over half (53%) said that of Obama. In a more recent poll, conducted by the Washington Post in January 2011, respondents were given the option of choosing whether Obama or Bush was “most responsible for the country’s economic problems.”  Many more chose Bush (54%) than Obama (29%).

New data from an April 14-17 YouGov poll confirms that Obama is still winning the blame game.

As the graph shows, 56% gave Bush a great deal or a lot of the blame, while only 41% gave Obama that much blame.  This 15-point gap is nearly identical to what Gallup found in September, albeit with a differently worded question and response categories.  Looked at a different way, 47% of voters blamed Bush more than Obama, 21% blamed them equally, and 32% blamed Obama more than Bush.

Naturally, Democrats and Republicans do not see eye-to-eye on the question of blame:

The vast majority of Democrats (80%) blame Bush, while large numbers of Republicans (83%) blame Obama.  The partisan bias isn’t quite symmetric, as there are more Republicans who blame Bush (24%) than Democrats who blame Obama (12%).  Pure independents, those with no leaning toward either party, tend to blame Bush more than Obama.

This tendency to blame the previous incumbent more than the current one is nothing new.  The same was true when Bush himself was president.  Early in Bush’s first term, from March through November 2001, the country also experienced a recession.  Because the recession came so early in Bush’s term, and because the economic slowdown had begun late in Clinton’s second term, there was debate about who to blame.

Two different polls—by the Washington Post in February 2002 and by Princeton Survey Research Associates in May 2003—showed that, in fact, Clinton was blamed more than Bush.  In the Post poll, 78% of pure independents thought that the economy was “not so good” or “poor.”  Among this subset of independents with a negative view of the economy, 69% believed Clinton deserved “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of blame, but only 48% believed this of Bush.  Similarly, among the minority who thought the economy was doing well, more credited Bush than Clinton.  In the PSRA poll, 30% of independents thought Clinton deserved “most” or “a lot” of blame while 22% thought Bush did.  Even though Bush, like Obama now, was well into his first term, these voters still saw the prior president as more responsible for the country’s economic problems.

The ultimate question for Obama is: could some voters’ willingness to blame Bush more than Obama actually help him win reelection?  Here is one way to answer this question.  Take the difference between how much blame voters assign to Obama and Bush.  This serves as a measure of Obama’s blame advantage or disadvantage relative to Bush (where, as noted above, Obama has a net advantage).  Using that measure—as well as other relevant factors, including party identification, ideology, sex, race, and income—predict how much people approve of the job Obama is doing as president and whether they would vote for him and not Romney.

Then “erase” any blame advantage for either Bush or Obama, which assumes a world in each every person blamed Bush and Obama equally. What would happen in this world?  First, Obama’s job approval would decline by about 11 points.  Second, his poll standing relative to Romney’s would decline by 3 points.  Both of these declines are statistically significant and substantively important.

To be sure, this exercise is purely hypothetical. Life isn’t a laboratory, and we can’t replay Obama’s first 3 years and have voters blame him less or more than they do in reality.  Nevertheless, Obama’s lead in the blame game appears to be helping him in the horserace.

(Cross-posted at Model Politics and Princeton University Press’s Elections 101).

12 Responses to The Blame Game

  1. Sue Baines April 27, 2012 at 4:19 pm #

    This was a STUPID article……..I thought you were going to give me some REASON you blame Obama more, but no…….you asked a bunch of dumb people what they thought and who gives a flying leap what they think, because they don’t think……..

    • LV April 27, 2012 at 8:02 pm #

      Maybe, but, ummm …. they vote. That’s Sides’s point.

    • Peter April 27, 2012 at 8:15 pm #

      Welcome to the Monkey Cage, Sue. You’re going to hate it here.

      • John Sides April 27, 2012 at 9:21 pm #

        Peter: Your comment is my favorite comment in the entire 4-plus year history of this blog. Thank you.

        • LFC October 4, 2012 at 1:06 am #

          Sue really is going to hate it here, assuming she sticks around, which she almost certainly won’t. Because this post, in its implicit assumption that it is not even worth asking whether voters are correct to blame one candidate or another, arguably says a fair amount about how The Monkey Cage views politics — and (perhaps more indirectly, I wouldn’t push this too far) about how The Monkey Cage views political science. (Occasionally A. Gelman or another poster will, refreshingly, rent the veil of objectivity, for lack of a better phrase. Not too often, though.)

  2. Nadia Hassan April 27, 2012 at 4:57 pm #

    But, Professor Sides, I was wondering about a tactic the Obama team is using. Some Democratic Pollsters have found that messaging on the blame game produces pretty negative results. It seems like both sides are aiming to do a clarifying campaign here.

    I’ve mentioned Stan Greenberg’s research before:

    He found really bad results for “blame Bush” messaging:

    But, growth while weaker, seems to be more borderline than slam dunk in either direction. For instance, if you look at Nate Silver’s top 3 predictors of elections, none of them are THAT pro-Republican. For example, it doesn’t look like unemployment will rise. Growth this quarter was around 2%, so it points to a close race that perhaps leans slightly to the GOP, rather than say the contraction for Carter in 1980 or McCain in 2008. Or, the sub 2% growth during much of 2011. Though some suggest that we might be facing sub 2% growth through 2011 because of considerations like weakness abroad for exports and the fact that consumption rose but the savings rate declined and that is unsustainable. Also, so far, the jobless claims seem to suggest softer growth not negative growth. Nate calculated that Obama needs roughly 150,000 jobs per month to keep his. Looking at what some economists have been saying lately, an extrapolation of the jobless claims data would be around 140-150 K. Barely below.

    “We’re probably in the ballpark of 150,000,” Feroli said of the April jobs report, which is due out next week. He expects the unemployment rate to be unchanged at 8.2 percent. “

    Citigroup economist Steve Wieting said he expects to see 145,000 nonfarm payrolls were added in April.

    Nate noted that And that does not take into consideration factors like the 1st term incumbent bonus. The charts seem to imply unemployment only has to avoid rising, and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to rise.

    In any case, I wanted to ask about one particular tactic: Tying the GOP to Bush. The Obama campaign frequently talks about “Back to the Future.” I am wondering whether that is a great idea in light of the results Stan Greenberg found, as well as a passage in Lynn’s book: “As Vavreck writes in the Message Matters about 1992, “Bush further hurt his chances by choosing to label Clinton as a New Deal Democrat. Clinton, whose campaign called him “A New Kind of Democrat,” and who had been instrumental in developing the Democratic Leadership Council, was moving away from New Deal programs like welfare. Bush’s strategy here is a clear violation of the theory’s explanation of winning insurgent campaigns—insurgent candidates have to focus on issues on which their opponents are committed to unpopular positions. Clinton was not a committed New Dealer, and in fact, he was a committed new kind of Democrat.”

    Couldn’t Romney’s aura of competance and small government platform challenge that? George W. Bush said that he didn’t want to balance the budget on the backs of the poor and he grew spending on social programs, but Mitt Romney’s lines on the poor in some more recent speeches hew to a more classical small government strain of thinking: “And poverty will be defeated, not with a government check, but with respect and achievement that is taught by parents, learned in school, and practiced in the workplace.”

    Should Obama try to tie Romney to Bush?

    • John Sides April 27, 2012 at 9:40 pm #

      Nadia: I don’t think Obama needs to tie Romney to Bush, per se. Obama is already benefiting from the residual blame on Bush. If the economy is not a slam-dunk for Obama — and I think you’re right, it’s not great but not terrible either — then Vavreck’s argument would suggest that Obama should find issues on which Romney’s position is farther from the average voter than is Obama’s and which Romney can’t wiggle out of easily. It seems like that’s the direction Obama is heading by trying to paint Romney as a hardcore conservative based on some of his positions thus far in the race.

  3. Joe Fritz May 1, 2012 at 4:13 pm #

    Romney is a slinkie, a bobble head, and a liar, he needs to get his act together,

  4. Johnny D. May 3, 2012 at 9:19 pm #

    I hate to say this because its not out front right now, but if Americans start to hear that Mormon’s believe they are God, wear golden underwear and are buying land in Missouri because that is where Jesus is supposed to land in his airplane after the American Constitution is hanging by a thread, I think Romney is going to have problems way beyond Obama’s Preacher problem. Its why most evangelical christians would not vote for Romney under any circumstance. Also lets not forget that the LDS’s consider this Joseph Smith guy to be a prophet even though he was tried and killed in Carthage City which the circumstances that are reportedly whacko to say the least and a big part of their world. Romney has hid the stuff well so far but its only a matter of time, which is why I think he keeps cutting deals with Pastors and dumped the openly gay advisor so quick.

    Its also why Romney is so stiff and uncomfortable, its right now the biggest deflection he has to make in a slew of deceptions that he is running. The only issue will be if GOP hate of Obama will outweigh letting someone like this actually run the country? Weird but a very true undercurrent going on. To be continued….

    • AnnW May 4, 2012 at 11:29 am #

      As an atheist, I think most religious beliefs based on “faith” are weird. Obama is Christian, and I will still vote for him!

      • James Ryan May 7, 2012 at 3:10 pm #

        I agree with Ann – what Mormon’s believe is no less weird than the virtual cannibal cocktail party indulged in on Communion Sundays.

  5. Stephen Baird May 16, 2012 at 11:40 pm #

    I recently read the article, “Blame, Responsibility, and the Tea Party in the 2010 Midterm Elections,” by Aldrich et al. (2012), and believe that some of their findings may be applicable to this post. Aldrich et al. make a distinction between blame and responsibility. The authors find that in the 2010 election, respondents who blamed both parties for the nation’s problems were more likely to believe that the “Republicans would be better for the economy and jobs than Democrats (32 percent to 19 percent, respectively).” They also found that “respondents who blamed both parties for the state of the nation were significantly less likely to vote for Democratic candidates.” Aldrich et al. assert that this suggests that voters make “a distinction between blame and responsibility.” It seems possible that voters could blame Bush for state of the economy, but still believe President Obama is responsible for fixing it. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen many polls that include an option for blaming both Bush and President Obama. However, as the campaign season continues, I assume polls will be conducted that may provide a more accurate measure of responsibility.