What can Romney do if the economy keeps growing?
Lynn Vavreck considers how economy-based election forecasts could —and perhaps should—be used by campaigns:
If you were considering a run for the presidency, would you want to know what this forecast predicts for your party? I think you would; 12 out the last 16 elections are correctly predicted by the model, of course you want to know what it says about your chances for winning.
But what if it says your party is likely to lose? As I lay out in The Message Matters, we learn a lot from the four elections that the forecasts get wrong (and so do potential candidates!) In 1960 and 1976 for example, the candidate who was not predicted to win based on a forecast actually won the election. How did that happen? And why is it so rare? A close reading of presidential campaign messages over the last 60 years reveals that it is rare because it is hard. It is hard to beat an incumbent in a growing economy; even if you are fighting a war in Vietnam. Even if you are mired down in conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even if unemployment is 8%.
In 1960, John F. Kennedy turned the election into an all-out war for the future of the world with the Soviets on the other side. He made the contest about missiles, and who had more, but also about education and the arts. In speeches, he eloquently asked Americans to consider whose symphonies would be played in the great concert halls around the world—our’s or their’s? And whose poetry would be read at great universities? He weaved the war with the Soviets into everything he talked about —and eventually, Richard Nixon was talking about it, too. “High hopes?” Nixon said at one campaign stop. “We all have high hopes. I have high hopes, too. . .” High Hopes was one of Kennedy’s campaign theme songs.
Here’s the take-away: campaigns matter. Maybe not in the wholesale manner that most pundits want candidates to believe (campaigns are not swaying 30 percent of the vote, for example), but they do matter—and they are critical in many cases (precisely because they sway 3 percent of the vote!)
Who among us doesn’t think Al Gore would have won the 2000 election at the Electoral College level if he had connected himself to Bill Clinton’s growing economy? The forecasts for 2000 all predict a Gore victory and because he didn’t win the election, critics say the forecasting models are “wrong.” I say Gore was wrong! He didn’t talk about the economy, he didn’t take credit for the goods the Clinton administration brought to Americans —and because he didn’t link himself to that growth, he narrowly lost the Electoral College. That is not a failure of the model – that is a failure of the candidate.
There’s some evidence Team Romney is considering a similar question right now. If jobs keep returning at the rate of 200,000 or more per month, it’s going to be very hard to run against Obama’s recovering economy. So they’re searching for a new issue. At National Journal, Josh Kraushaar reports that “there are signs that Team Romney is seriously considering Ryan as a running mate, in order to brand the ticket as one focused on fiscal responsibility.”
That’s a messaging decision born out of necessity, and it signals an uphill race for Romney. As Ben Domenech writes in this morning’s Transom, “This is a profoundly dangerous political strategy because it...forces the campaign off an optimistic tone of ‘we can get America back to work’ to the ‘I am the prophet warning you of the coming apocalypse’ category. The latter has rarely been a successful election message in the entirety of America’s history of presidential politics, and never in the modern era for a challenger against an incumbent (see examples of how it played out in 1984 for a worst case scenario).”
But, as Vavreck says, the Romney campaign may not have much choice. “It is hard to beat an incumbent in a growing economy,” she writes. And it might be impossible if you can’t figure out something else to talk about.