Bill Kristol Is Wrong – Why Campaign Strategy Is Overrated and Why Romney May Win

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.


  1. The Kerry example Kristol uses is pretty odd; focusing on jobs and the economy didn’t work for Kerry because a) the economy had been showing strong growth for a year and a half leading up to the election and b) the unemployment rate under Bush never got above 6.3% and had fallen to 5.4% by election day.

    Focusing on the economy can, indeed, be myopic. But it makes a whole lot more sense now than it did in 2003-2004.

  2. Chris – In line with your concluding thought, remember that national security issues loomed much larger in 2004 than today as well.

  3. I think Obama’s loss is a foregone conclusion. Despite much talk I think the difference between them may be slight. Obama if reelected will face most likely a divided Congress and Presidents cannot accomplish much of their programs if elected. One cannot argue that Obama did the best he could at the beginning of his term when their may have been a chance for a more agressive economic program. He was incapable of doing this for a very complex variety of reasons, even if he had the character he was not as experienced as say Roosevelt for example.

    While Romney is repugnant to me and I oppose all of his stated policies, I believe that he has a better shot of doing a better job than Obama. If elected with a Republican Majority and if the Demcrats are incapable or unwilling to obstruct we may get the jobs program which Obama should have done at the outset. In any event in such circumstances Romney will have the chance of doing something.

    If the Democrats obstruct Romney (like Hoover was obstructed during the Depression) then we might enter a great Depression and fear of Revolution or violence might become so great that the next Democrat will have a Roosevelt like opportunity. This is the only sort of thing which allows great social change in the U.S. The danger is that the U.S. will become a military dictatorship or the equivalent under social stress. In view of our prior history this is not a zero probability event. Also Romney’s weakness is in foreign policy where his advisors may get us into multiple wars i.e. Iran. Such a war will fix the economy at a cost of a world wide catastrophe. In short Romney’s election raises the probability for social change but carries considerable risk. We have to go back to the 1950s or earlier when the public had even the illusion of knowing what the next President would do.

  4. I don’t think Romney winning is a forgone conclusion, as the person above does. Whether or not campaign strategy plays a huge role, I think that there are a broad swath of people who make up the Republican base who just do not trust Romney and are less likely to come out and vote for him.

  5. Zach – It is still early to put much faith in our forecast models, but even at this date it seems clear that, barring a significant change in the economy, this election is going to be very very close.

  6. I agree that it will be close, and that it’s hard to predict the outcome at this point. I just believe that the working class core of the Republican party will not turn out for Romney the way that he needs them to in order to win. I think that elections are about turnout, not persuasion, and I wouldn’t bet against the Obama campaign winning in that regard.

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