I just read Lynn Vavreck’s excellent The Message Matters. It takes as given the fact that in presidential elections, the economy is by far the most important factor. The GNP growth during the last quarter of the year before the election and first two quarters of the election year is a shockingly good way to predict election outcomes. This is the basis for most of my thinking about national politics. What’s funny is that this information doesn’t seem to have trickled down to politicians. Mitt Romney’s campaign was based on the idea that the bad economy was good for his electoral chances. But a bad economy doesn’t matter; it is the economic trend. And in 2012, the trend was positive. But what Vavreck tries to do in her book is determine what people like Mitt Romney should have campaigned on.
Here’s the thing. The person we elect president is usually the one the economy would predict, but not always. Vavreck argues that insurgent candidates—people like Romney who are running against economic fundamentals—can win if they can change the subject. But they must pick a popular issue that they are with the public and their opponent is not and is constrained from co-opting. Romney tried to do this to a small extent, but his focus was on the economy, which was a mistake.
But even the way that Romney tried to refocus the campaign showed a lot about how the Republican Party’s lack of sensible policy cripples them. It is all based on the idea that Democrats are a bunch of Marxists and pacifists. That might all work just fine as propaganda. But Romney based his attacks on an actual belief that they were true. So it was easy for Obama to show his foreign policy was at least as belligerent as what the American people wanted. And any appeals about the economy just reminded people that things were a lot better since Obama took over from Romney’s party.
I don’t know just how useful any of this information is to candidates, because the truth is that it is really hard to control the conversation. Vavreck presented a table (4.3) where she compared what every candidate from Eisenhower through Gore campaigned on and how the media covered the campaigns. Until the end of the Cold War, the media almost always focused on foreign policy, even though that was rarely what the candidates were talking about. But okay: at least foreign policy is a real thing.
Starting in 1988, the media focused on candidate traits even though these were never what the campaigns were about. This is so disappointing although hardly surprising. We all know that the media focus on nonsense in the campaigns. And that was especially true in the 2000 campaign. Remember all the false narratives about Gore that the media couldn’t stop talking about long enough to actually fact check them? We rightly say that the Supreme Court gave the election to Bush, but it is just as correct to say that the media provided a huge assist.
What is even more disturbing is that the only time the media have focused on the economy was the Carter-Ford election of 1976. Remember: the economy is what the people care most about. Yet the supposedly liberal media aren’t interested in the subject. I don’t think it is any surprise why this is. Mainstream journalists have nice comfortable jobs that depend upon the rich media owners who do not want there to be too much discussion of our economic problems that mostly involve the government taking money from the poor and giving it to the rich.
If anyone takes anything away from this book, it will be the Democrats. And maybe it already happened. It was published in 2009, yet Obama’s campaign seemed to know that the economy was a good (though not a great) issue for them. But the Romney campaign seemed to think that the economy was a great issue for them. I guess the conservative resistance to facts doesn’t just hurt our country; it also hurts the Republican Party.