The reason that political science forecast models are reasonably effective at predicting the popular vote months in advance of the actual election is that they are based on the fundamentals that largely determine how people vote. As long-time readers will recall, these fundamentals typical include some combination of economic and foreign affairs indicators. These are short-hand measures – say, quarterly growth in disposable income and war casualties – that capture the state of the world, as viewed by Joe and Jane Six Pack. This does not mean, however, that candidates and campaigns are meaningless. Instead, our assumption is that both sides in an election will effectively focus on those aspects of the fundamentals that benefit their own candidate, and/or disadvantage the opposition. In other words, for the forecast models to work, each of the two major candidates must choose the best campaign frame, given the fundamentals.
Not surprisingly, given her previous experience on the national stage, Sarah Palin – in yet another “non-campaign” campaign stop in Iowa – articulated what I think will be the most effective Republican frame in 2012: ending “corporate crony capitalism” (unofficial speech transcript here). The phrase did not originate with her, but it was the takeaway line from her 45-minute address before mostly Tea Party activists yesterday. And it undoubtedly will work its way into the campaign frame of whoever wins the Republican nomination. (Here’s the speech. In addition to the crony line [go to the 12:20 mark] her best line is: “You got off the couch, you came down from the deer stands, you came out of the duck blind, you got off your John Deere” to win an election victory of historic proportions in 2010 [this at the 9 minute mark]. That’s America – either watching t.v. or shooting things! )
The reason why this campaign frame is so effective is that it is non-partisan; as Palin made clear yesterday, it can be used to bludgeon both Republicans and Democrats. By lumping in corporations with career politicians as “entrenched interests”, this frame will attract independent voters who are disillusioned with the partisan polarization in Washington. Moreover, as a catchphrase it can be applied to a host of government policies, dating back to the original TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) passed by the Democratically-controlled Congress and signed into law by Republican President George W. Bush, through the auto bailout legislation, the $800 billion jobs stimulus bill and the Affordable Care Act, to name the most prominent. Think about the shorthand criticism each of these bills has received. TARP was viewed as a “bank bailout” that, in the end, did little to resuscitate the moribund housing market or to help those who can’t meet mortgage payments. Rather than create jobs and lower unemployment, the stimulus bill funneled money to state and local governments and their political allies. Health “reform” as yet has done nothing to hold down skyrocketing medical costs, but it does force people to buy insurance, thus serving as a government-mandate that primarily benefits the health insurance industry. Never mind that the situation is more complicated than these shorthand descriptions suggest – there’s no room for nuance in a presidential campaign. Campaign frames work when they encapsulate broadly held voter sentiment, and right now a sizeable chunk of the electorate views these programs through jaundiced eyes.
Palin’s phrase is effective as a critique not just of policies, but of the legislative handmaidens as well. Consider who was instrumental in devising these policies and getting them through Congress. Why, the Wall Street bankers and financiers – Henry Paulson and Tim Geithner – and their academic cronies – Ben Bernanke and Larry Summers – who got us in this mess in the first place! Again, this is an unfair characterization of these individuals, but all’s fair on the campaign trail. It’s the traditional populist message that resonates with Americans’ historic distrust of ‘bigness” -big government and big corporations.
Note that these criticisms are precisely what fueled the Tea Party movement that proved so instrumental in returning control of the House to Republicans in 2010. But they also resonant with progressives who feel Obama and Democrats have been too willing to cut deals with Republicans to benefit corporate interests – see, for example, their reaction to the debt deal and the extension of the Bush tax cuts. That’s why this campaign theme is going to prove so effective for whichever Republican emerges with the nomination. And it’s a frame that Obama will need to counter if he is going to win a second term in the White House.
For her part, Palin continues running for president. Her Iowa speech was her most detailed to date, and in it she provided more than a glimpse of the “mavericky” campaign she will likely run. Her policy proposals include the elimination of “corporate welfare” in the form of tax loopholes and subsidies combined with an end to the corporate income tax – a clear effort to play both ends of the ideological spectrum against each other. It is unclear whether this latest effort will help begin to overcome the sizable negatives that are associated with her public profile, but national polls continue to place her among the top three Republican candidates, behind Perry and Romney. She goes to New Hampshire tomorrow.
Meanwhile, the President will provide the first glimpse of his likely campaign frame in a nationally-televised addressed this Thursday. I’ll turn to that topic in my next post.