It was Fall of 2012 and I had just transferred to UNC. I was still riding a political high from my semester in DC and election excitement abounded. That semester I took JOMC 244: Talking Politics: An Introduction to Political Communication. One component of the class was political analysis writing. Our class posted these analyses on our blog, which I took upon myself to maintain. My research focused on how presidential candidates campaign based on the economic climate. Here is a link to my work on the blog.
As presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Barack Obama round the bend of this historic race, the election outcome continues to be a mystery. Recently, Romney has been favored to win according to recent economic forecasting models, including one model which predicted the outcome in 2000, when Al Gore won the popular vote but George W. Bush won the election through the Electoral College.
In her book The Message Matters, Lynn Vavreck argues that the state of the economy is not the sole determinant of an election. Rather, the economy acts as the context in which the campaigns perform. The campaign’s message does matter, she claims.
Vavreck writes that there are three main ways in which campaigns can influence voters:
- Agenda setting. The candidate will try to tell voters what issues are important in this election, and they do this by talking repeatedly about what he/she believes should be important to vote choice.
- Persuading. Candidates try to educate voters that a candidate holds a specific position on an issue, whether talking about their own position or trying to paint an opponent’s position as unpopular.
- Clarify. Candidates will make it clear to voters that the position he holds is popular.
Then voters will compare candidates and vote for the one they are closest to on these issues
Because the economy is something that all citizens are affected by, even the least informed voters can reflect on what their lives were like during the previous administration’s tenure. This is called retrospective voting. It is also an easier approach than thinking prospectively about how the next president’s policies might affect them. This demonstrates how important the nation’s economic situation could be to voters in elections. And candidates are normally able to predict whether the economy will help them because public opinion on the economy is one-sided- everyone prefers prosperity to decline.
Moving on to the relationship between campaigns and the economy, Vavreck describes the two types of candidates: clarifying and insurgent. Clarifying candidates are those who are helped by the state of the nation’s economy and clarify their role in fostering the good economic times or their lack of a role in bringing about bad times. This could be an incumbent with a good economy or the out-party candidate during a bad economy. The insurgent is always the candidate with a bad economy, and should refocus their campaign on other issues, like unpopular positions held by their opponent.
But what happens when the economy is experiencing virtually no growth, but is not in decline either?
Vavreck says this is a mixed economy situation for the candidates, and it can result in two scenarios. They can both behave as insurgents, and refocus the election on something else, or they can both become clarifying candidates and use it to their advantage. “In this case,” she writes, “the out-party insurgent candidate decides that the economic situation (small increase in growth) is so fragile that he or she can persuade voters the clarifying candidate’s stewardship has not been well handled, or in the opposite situation (a slight decline in growth), the incumbent-insurgent candidate argues that things are not as bad as the clarifying candidate says they are.”
Vavreck’s theory is predictive because it has been proven with past presidential elections. For example, both Jimmy Carter and John F. Kennedy, who focused on exploiting their opponents’ weaknesses, were victorious insurgent candidates. Clarifying candidates Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower earned themselves two terms by mainly talking about a booming economy and ignoring their opponents.
All of this begs questions that I would like to explore next: Who is the clarifying candidate and who is the insurgent candidate this election season? Or are Romney and Obama both behaving as clarifying candidates in a mixed economy?
The people have spoken. The “economy in general” remains the paramount issue that presidential candidates should reckon with this election cycle, according to a recent Gallup poll.
In my last blog post we ended with a couple of questions: Who is the clarifying candidate and who is the insurgent candidate? Or are Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama both behaving as clarifying candidates in a mixed economy? The latter is an option I have begun to explore.
Just to recap, Lynn Vavreck, in her book The Message Matters, argues that the economy acts as the stage on which candidates perform. She describes two types of candidates: clarifying and insurgent. A clarifying candidate is helped by the economy, and should run a campaign clarifying either their role in the healthy economy or their lack of role in a bad economy. Meanwhile, the insurgent candidate is not helped by the economy, and should find other issues to campaign on.
But Vavreck says that a mixed economy, in which the economy is experiencing almost no growth and teetering on the edge of decline, can create a dynamic in which both candidates behave as insurgents, or as clarifying candidates. In the latter case, Vavreck points out, “the out-party insurgent candidate decides that the economic situation (small increase in growth) is so fragile that he or she can persuade voters the clarifying candidate’s stewardship has not been well handled …”
Though it is unclear the actual state of the economy, that is beside the point. Both candidates are acting according to what Vavreck calls a mixed economy, and following the excerpt above, Mitt Romney would be the out-party insurgent. But I have found Romney to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing — and not in a bad way.
Mitt Romney has consistently behaved as a clarifying candidate from the beginning. Throughout the Republican primary debates, Romney made his campaign’s focus the economy and President Obama’s failure in office, rather than immigration, religion, or attacking GOP rivals. In many of his advertisements, Romney talks about his policies to create a better economy and blames Obama for the debt, loss of jobs, and overall poor economy. His tag-line at the end is usually, “we can’t afford four more years,” which encourages voters to think retrospectively.
Meanwhile, Obama is another puzzling story. Though he is technically a clarifying candidate, an incumbent in an ever-so-slightly growing economy, Obama’s campaign doesn’t seem to follow that story line to a T. A majority of Obama’s advertisements are also attack ads, mostly focusing on Romney’s record with Bain Capital and unpopular positions he has held, i.e., 47 percent, 5 trillion dollar tax cut. This heavy focus on tarnishing Romney’s record is characteristic of an insurgent candidate. According to Vavreck, “Insurgent candidates ought to pick issues that directly exploit the weaknesses or constraints of their opponents-who should be running on the state of the nation’s economy.” Recently, however, Obama touted his record and outlined the progress made in the last four years in an ad called “Determination.” This is a clarifying candidate strategy, and as such, he should be highlighting more good economic advancements and take credit for them in his advertisements.
But then there’s also the debates. The first debate, which some would say was the most important debate, focused on domestic policy, a perfect opportunity for one or the other to discuss the economy.
In a Huffington Post article, a word cloud indicated that Obama’s most used words were “governor” and “Romney” in the first debate. Romney said “people” the most, 69 times, followed by “tax,” “plan,” and “president.” Both candidates used the word ‘jobs’ about the same amount (25 times for Romney and 21 for Obama), but Romney said ‘economy’ 14 times, which did not rank in Obama’s most used words. While Romney looked presidential, the article commented, Obama looked more like a challenger, on defense.
So what’s the bottom line?
The state of the economy determines the types of candidates. Only three elections have been held during times when the economy is not clearly helping one candidate, according to Vavreck. I would argue that we are in a mixed economy this year because Romney, the out-party-insurgent, has been running a clarifying campaign, blaming Obama for the poor economic situation. Since the economy is experiencing slight growth, Obama is the incumbent-clarifying candidate, even though he comes across as defensive and beside the main point sometimes. However, neither in his ads or debates is Obama playing the economy card as much as Romney has, or as much as a clarifying candidate should.
Next time I will delve deeper into the ways in which each candidate is clarifying their positions on the economy through their advertisements and debate performances.
Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are driving their campaign messages home today as voters prepare to walk into the polls. I think these closing arguments should reaffirm of what types of campaign each are running — Romney being the clarifying candidate, and Obama the insurgent.
I have revised my position in my last post, which said that both candidates were behaving as clarifying candidates campaigning on the economy. My understanding of the two candidates’ behaviors with Lynn Vavreck’s mixed economy principles wasn’t quite fitting right. Then I realized that she allows room for circumstances that may not be so black and white: “ … these strict assumptions can be relaxed to accommodate situations in which it may not be clear which way the economy is going to go by election day.”
And with that statement, let’s turn our attention to an update on the economy. The unemployment rate inched up from 7.8 percent in September to 7.9 in October. In the third quarter, the economy grew at a 2 percent pace, but that “modest expansion is unlikely to result in robust job growth,” according to a USA Today article.
In their final stump speeches, the two candidates’ speech messages could not be more opposite. For Romney, it’s blaming the president for the poor economy, and for Obama, it’s sounding like desperation, a plea for four more years, with intermittent attacks on his opponent.
Today in Madison, Wisconsin, the president’s remarks hit on the auto industry bailout, the 5.5 million jobs added, Mitt Romney as a “talented salesman,” Osama Bin Laden’s death, health care, bad House Republican policies, education in relation to the economy, reducing the deficit, and many references to Bill Clinton’s days in office. There’s a reason this list is so long. I see this as Obama’s attempt to set the agenda and tell voters what he wants them to think is important in this election, which as you can see, is anything but the economy.
But in Ohio and Northern Virginia, recently, Obama has been met with boos when taking a stab at Romney’s record, wrote Associated Press’s Ken Thomas Sunday. ” … At every stop, as he has for months, Obama aims to draw bright lines with Romney and set up the campaign as a choice. He defends his record and warns that Romney would take the nation back to the policies of the Bush administration and the crumbling economy that marked its final days.”
With Obama’s pleas for those in swing states to stay with him and setting up his campaign as a choice, it seems as though he is asking the electorate to think prospectively, and not retrospectively. This is the best approach for him to take as an insurgent because he is not strongly advantaged by the economy, and, because voters associate the state of the economy so closely with the president, his performance. As for taking stabs at Romney, candidates running an insurgent campaign should absolutely exploit the weaknesses of their opponent according to Vavreck’s theory.
A Politico article cited former Clinton speechwriter David Kusnet, saying, “the closing argument stump speech is full of clues — about Obama’s sense of himself, about his relationship with his supporters, about Congress and about his opponents.”
Meanwhile, Romney has not let up up on attacking his opponent and has clarified his position on the economy. Also notable, he has stayed away from distracting issues like foreign policy, which got him into trouble in the second debate.
Romney’s speech in Wisconsin Friday homed in on the “now familiar litany of broken promises by President Obama — unemployment, poverty, debt and partisanship,” said one Washington Post article. “He hit his jobs theme, repeatedly asking the crowd if Obama’s action created more jobs. (Did Obamacare create new jobs? Did the war on coal and oil create new jobs?) The crowd responded with a ringing ‘No!’ after each question. He cracked, ‘You passed the test!’”
The reporter sounds annoyed and tired of reporting the same message, i.e. the now familiar litany … . But for Romney, repeating the same economy figures and presidential failures in speeches and advertisements is the best thing he can do for his campaign. Opposite Obama, Romney is banking on the electorate voting retrospectively, hence the now clichéd slogan “We can’t afford four more years.”
Romney has dominated the economic discussion, which would explain why likely voters trust Romney over Obama to handle the economy, 52 to 43 percent.
Vavreck’s research indicates that nine out of 15 clarifying candidates since 1952 have won the presidency. But while (what I suspect to be) Mitt Romney’s campaign approach is the most successful path to the White House, Obama has a slight lead in the polls going into election day.
I’ve reached out to Lynn Vavreck herself on Twitter, and look forward to hear a response as to who she believes are the insurgent and clarifying candidates now that the campaigns are over. In June she thought Obama to be the clarifying candidate.
Headlines across the media post-election agreed: President Obama may have been granted another four years in the White House, but Nate Silver won the election. His analysis, which takes into account the size, quality, and recency of polls, accurately predicted 50 out of 50 states. Silver’s feat is impressive, considering the outcome of the 2012 election was lost on pundits and political scientists across the country. Most political scientists and economists base their forecasting models solely on economic fundamentals, and have had a subpar record in predicting election winners since the 1980s when it became popular. As a result, I don’t find these models so useful, especially this year.
In his New York Times blog Fivethirtyeight, Silver shows that for the last five elections, not including this year’s, models averaged astandard error of about eight points. Economist’s and political scientist’s had their worst year in 2000, predicting that Gore would win by a margin of about twenty points.
There are several problems with election forecasting models based on the economy. For starters, Silver says, they make their predictions too far ahead of time — easy for Silver to say, who continually updated his prediction up until election day. Also, I question the relevance of these models, which for the most part only predict the popular vote, not venturing as far as the electoral college.
University of Colorado professors Ken Bickers and Michael Berry gained notoriety for their prediction that Democrat Al Gore would win the popular vote and Republican George Bush would win the electoral college in the 2000 election. Their model factors in unemployment rates and changes in real per capita income on the state level. This year they predicted Republican Mitt Romney would win by a landslide, taking nearly every battleground state. (I have yet to see a mea-culpa article from them.)
There are other interesting factors that some political scientists take into account, such as Douglas Hibbs’ Bread and Peace model, which looks at per capita real disposable personal income over the incumbent president’s term, and cumulative U.S. military fatalities in overseas conflicts. Hibbs’ results revealed that President Obama would receive 48 percent of the vote share. This is an unusual one. I don’t know how military fatalities could be relevant in predicting an election, especially since foreign policy has taken a backseat to the economy this year.
It seems as though many models factor in irrelevant metrics. Then there’s political scientist Alan Abramowitz, who has held among the lower standards of error, has accurately predicted the popular vote (but not the electoral college) winner in every election since 1988, including this year’s election. His forecast is based on the candidate’s approval rating at the end of June, the growth of the economy, and the value of the “incumbency factor.” I think Abramowitz has been successful, comparatively speaking, because he employs very relevant metrics — approval rating and economic growth.
We have to remember that according to Vavreck, voter’s attitudes about the state of the economy are intimately connected to their approval of the incumbent party. Many voters tend to vote retrospectively, and if they are informed about anything, it’s their own economic condition. And Silver admits there is a connection between incumbents and the economy, saying, “ … ruling parties seemed to be having an easier time keeping hold of power when the economy was good.”
This year’s economic situation was complex and mixed, like we’ve been talking about. Perhaps this is the reason prediction models have been all over the place. Maybe an unstable economy produces unreliable presidential predictions. But generally, as depicted in this graph, fundamental models have done a poor job of making accurate predictions. “The ‘fundamentals’ models, in fact, have had almost no predictive power at all,” Silver says in his blog post. “Over this 16-year period, there has been no relationship between the vote they forecast for the incumbent candidate and how well he actually did — even though some of them claimed to explain as much as 90 percent of voting results.”
Lynn Vavreck’s theory supplies the fundamental metric that these election models are missing: How candidates set the agenda and tell voters what they should be thinking about as they make their decisions. Yes, current economic conditions are vital to voters’ judgements, but whether the president in a good economy can tout that good record, or if the insurgent can point out failures in his opponent will also shape voters’ decisions.