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A Referendum or a Choice

- July 29, 2011

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.