Patterico's Pontifications


Yes, 2012 will be (mostly) a referendum on Obama

Filed under: 2012 Election — Karl @ 8:29 am

[Posted by Karl]

Liberals are getting increasingly touchy about the looming prospect of voters judging Pres. Obama’s term of office.  They are almost as touchy about those noting that Obama wants to focus his campaign on his opponents, real and imagined, rather than on his record or the economy.

For example, Ed Kilgore found a straw man resembling Jay Cost and proceeded to beat it as thoroughly as Obama has been beating various straw men these past months.  Kilgore claims that “Cost even goes so far as to tell swing voters what they have to care about,” then quotes Jay:

I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that the average swing voter does not want to talk about the “war on women,” the Buffett rule, or whatever else Team Obama is going to throw out there in the weeks and months to come. That voter wants to talk about jobs, the economy, the deficit, gas prices, the health care bill–in other words, all the issues where the president is vulnerable.

Those not already in the tank for Obama might notice that Jay is not telling swing voters what to think about, but offering his opinion about what they want to talk about.  Gallup suggests Cost is correct, with their most recent poll showing voters — even Democrats — think healthcare, unemployment, the debt, national defense and terrorism, and gas prices are all more important issues than birth control policy.  Indeed, I doubt Kilgore could find a poll showing any other result (or he would have cited one).

TIME’s Joe Klein has the same complaint, this time with a New Democrat-type:

Bill Galston has a piece in The New Republic listing the reasons why Barack Obama is going to have a tough time winning reelection in November. He’s right about most of them, but wrong about the one at the very top–he buys into the political science mythology that some presidential elections are referendums on the incumbent’s record and others are straight-ahead choices. I’ve seen some elections that are referendums on the President, but those have almost always been Congressional campaigns, like 2010 and 2006 or 1994. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a presidential election that was a pure referendum, and every presidential election I’ve covered involved a choice. There are good reasons for this.

Funny how the so-called “reality-based community” abandons academics when they report findings inconvenient to liberals, ain’t it?  Political scientists will tell you that Presidents get pretty much all the blame on (or credit for) the economy, even with divided government, even in presidential election years.

Plus, Klein’s historical examples as bad as his knowledge of the studies.  Klein claims that “[i]n 1976, Jimmy Carter tried to make the election a referendum on Richard Nixon–and was in the process of failing at that, when Gerald Ford turned in a weak debate performance and saved the election for Carter.”  Political scientist Lynn Varveck explains in her book, The Message Matters, that 1976 was an exceptional year in which Gerald Ford could not successfully campaign on the economy, precisely because Carter could make the contest a referendum on the Nixon era.  Klein then claims:

1988 should have been a referendum on the Reagan presidency–Michael Dukakis surged to an early lead in the polls because people wanted a change, then crashed when he couldn’t answer a debate question about what he’d do if his wife were raped and murdered (We haven’t heard a debate like that in a while).

In reality, 1988 was a referendum on the Reagan presidency — Klein just rejects the result of that referendum.  The outcome in 1988 neatly tracked the result expected from the economy.  Those pesky political scientists would tell Klein early polls are not predictive, if only he would listen.  But he cannot listen.  If he listened, he would have to abandon his fantasy that Dukakis was somehow done in by a lousy debate answer.  (Again, political scientists could tell Klein about the historically small effects that presidential debates have had on general election polls and outcomes. )

If Klein finds regression analyses and scatter plots too difficult, perhaps he can consider public opinion polling.  That’s what William Galston (whom Klein criticizes) did last October:

When a president is running for reelection, the electorate is primarily motivated by its judgment of the incumbent’s job performance. Consider some Pew Research Center data on recent presidential contests.

In the spring of 1992, two-thirds of George H. W. Bush’s supporters said that they would be casting their vote for him rather than against Bill Clinton, while two-thirds of Clinton supporters said their vote reflected opposition to Bush. In the spring of 1996, 60 percent of Clinton’s supporters said they would be voting for him rather than against Bob Dole, while 60 percent of Dole’s supporters said their vote reflected opposition to Clinton. Early in 2004, more than 80 percent of George W. Bush’s supporters were for him rather than against John Kerry, while two-thirds of Kerry’s supporters were motivated by opposition to Bush.

To be sure, these numbers tend to shift during the general election as the contenders become better known. Still, by Election Day in 1996, only 47 percent of Dole’s supporters said that they were casting their vote in his favor rather than against Clinton; by election day in 2004, only 43 percent of Kerry’s supporters said that they were casting an affirmative vote for him.

Now look at the most recent Pew results, which showed Obama in a tie with Mitt Romney. About three-quarters of Obama’s support is for him rather than against Romney, while more than two-thirds of Romney’s supporters say they will cast their votes against Obama rather than for Romney.

In short, the historical data, regardless of type, points to 2012 being primarily a referendum on Obama and the economy.  Galston suggests that in a general election contest against an unpopular incumbent, the main hurdles for the challenger are to appear competent and non-threatening.  Instead of touting his record at every opportunity, Obama seems focused on making Romney seem scary.  But if Carter couldn’t make Reagan seem scary, how successful is Obama likely to be?


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