As I write this post, panelists on Fox News Sunday, led by Bill Kristol, are debating the issue I discussed in my last post, namely, whether Mitt Romney’s single-minded focus on the economy is an effective strategy for winning the presidential race. In the discussion, Kristol is doubling down on his Weekly Standard editorial (headline: Dukakis, Kerry…Romney?). In it, Kristol writes: “Remember Michael Dukakis (1988) and John Kerry (2004)? It’s possible to lose a winnable presidential election to a vulnerable incumbent in the White House (or in the case of 1988, a sitting vice president). So, speaking of losing candidates from Massachusetts: Is it too much to ask Mitt Romney to get off autopilot and actually think about the race he’s running?” Kristol’s specific complaint is that Romney’s campaign has failed to lay out an alternative strategy to Obama’s for resuscitating the economy. Other movement conservatives have targeted the Romney team’s mishandling of the Court ruling that the individual mandate is constitutional under Congress’ taxing power.
Let me take up the Court ruling first. As I argued in the latest “Professor Pundits” piece with my colleague Bert Johnson, despite the initial wall-to-wall media coverage following the Roberts’ ruling, that decision is not likely to have much impact on the presidential race. According to Gallup only 6% of voters consider health care to be the most pressing issue facing the nation. This is slightly below the average number of Americans who cite health care as the number one issue dating back to the start of 2001, and far below the more than 30% of Americans citing it during the 1993-94 debate over Clinton’s health care policy, or the 26% referencing it during the debate over Obamacare (hat tip to Mo Fiorina for the Gallup link).
So, while I don’t doubt that the Republicans (but perhaps not Romney himself) will try to score points this fall with the Court’s ruling that the mandate is a tax, it’s not likely going to resonate with very many voters, particularly after the Court’s decision recedes in public consciousness.
The second reason I cited for why health care won’t matter is because most voters are much more concerned about the economy. When asked by Gallup to name the most important issue facing the country, 72% mention some aspect of the economy – jobs, the budget deficit, lack of money, or general economic issues – compared to only 6% citing health care. Another 12% cite dissatisfaction with government.
But what about Kristol’s complaint that Romney is not offering a viable alternative economic plan? Again, this misreads how voters go about choosing in a presidential election. For the most part, this election will be a referendum on the Obama administration’s handling of the economy. Most voters don’t get down in the weeds of the respective candidates’ economic plans; instead, they make broad-gauged estimates of the state of the economy, and decide based on their assessment whether they want to continue with the incumbent or kick him out. That decision turns more on evaluations of Obama’s record to date than it does on the specifics details of any economic plan Romney may propose. Indeed, Romney’s best strategy, contrary to Kristol’s advice, is to keep the focus on Obama and his economic record, rather than inviting scrutiny of any alternative plan. In this light, consider the memorable slogans of the previous campaigns that successfully unseated an incumbent president. In 1980, Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter by simply asking, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”
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Note that in this admittedly brief clip Reagan doesn’t bother touting the details of his own program – the thrust of his message is to focus on Jimmy Carter’s record. And, in fact, most polls suggested a majority of voters were closer to Carter on the issues than they were to Reagan. But when it came to casting their ballot, that mattered less than did their assessment of Carter’s handling of the economy. Similarly, in 1992, “the economy, stupid” became the mantra of the Clinton campaign – few people remember that the Clinton war room also posted two other campaign themes: “Change vs. more of the same” and “Don’t forget health care.”
Now, that strategy may yet fail for the simple reason that Obama is a first-term president. This means, as indicated by this Gallup Poll, that many voters still hold George W. Bush more responsible for the current state of the economy than they do President Obama.
This is why many presidential forecast models include a time-in-office variable signifying how long the current incumbent party has controlled the presidency. In 1992, when George H. W. Bush lost his bid for reelection, Republicans had sat in the Oval Office for 12 years. However, in 1980, Carter’s presidency represented only four years of Democratic control, so history offers a mixed lesson regarding whether Obama will get booted after only one term.
Make no mistake. This election will largely turn on assessments of Obama’s handling of the economy. To win a second term, Obama must persuade voters that the economy is heading in the right direction, and that he only needs more time to right the damage caused by his Republican predecessor. As indicated by the Gallup poll above, however, the trend lines are going in the wrong direction for the President, as slightly more than half of Americans now give Obama a “great deal” or “moderate” amount of blame for the state of the economy, compared to only 32% earlier in his term. This total includes 51% of independents who now give most of the blame to Obama. And come November, George W. Bush is not going to be on the ballot. If the next quarterly GDP report shows a shrinking economy, and if the coming monthly jobs reports indicate job growth is stagnant or even declining, it won’t matter much what strategy Romney pursues: Obama will join Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush as one-term presidents.