Winning With the Economy -- or Without It

The Message Matters: The Economy and Presidential Campaigns by Lynn Vavreck, Princeton University Press, 205 pages, $24.95

No future candidates for president and few of their advisers will read Lynn Vavreck's new book -- her statistical methods and academic style guarantee that -- but they will miss it at their own peril. This is not just another book about the impact of the economy on elections. The Message Matters breaks new ground in showing how presidential candidates effectively use the economy when it works in their favor and how some candidates win even when the economy is working against them.

For decades political scientists have tried to predict the outcome of elections by constructing statistical models that use different measures of economic performance and ignore the character of the candidates and the choices of their campaigns. As a pollster who has helped direct campaigns, I have never found these academic models all that convincing. Missing the final vote by up to 8 points, as their forecasts often do, would have gotten me fired. And in most presidential elections, predicting the winner is not rocket science, and barbers and bartenders do as well as the modelers.

With considerable elegance, Vavreck departs from the dominant tradition in election forecasting by focusing on the strategies that candidates follow, including the narratives they build, and by showing respect for what voters learn from the campaigns. Voters do use the economy to judge the incumbent's leadership and project future performance, but in some elections they also respond to other issues such as trust, domestic policy, and national security.

This book is quite personal for me. As the pollster for Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign, I was part of the strategic team that made "It's the economy, stupid" the central focus under the banner "Change versus more of the same." And from July 2000 onward, I did the national polling for Al Gore's presidential campaign, which was criticized for not making the economy central enough.

According to Vavreck's analysis, if you want to know who wins the presidency and by how much, you start with the candidate who has been helped by the economy during the nine months before July 1 of the election year. If the economy has been growing, that's the candidate of the incumbent party; if the economy has been stagnant or declining, it's the challenger. Each of these is in a position to run what Vavreck calls a "clarifying campaign." That is an appealing phrase for me, as it implies that what counts is not just the economy but how a campaign frames the economic argument to political effect.

Between 1952 and 2000, nine of the 13 clarifying campaigns (with the economy at their back) won, whether or not the candidates emphasized the economy in their speeches and advertising more than their opponents did. But when those candidates did emphasize the economy, every clarifying campaign won, with the exception of Gerald Ford in the aftermath of Watergate. Of the five clarifying campaigns that chose not to elevate the economy above all other issues, three lost. Those results concentrate the mind.

In each election, there is also an "insurgent campaign" that does not have the economy working for it. Although most insurgent candidates lose, four of them from 1952 to 2000 prevailed. Each downplayed the economy and instead grabbed hold of another issue and created a defining difference with his opponent: John Kennedy in 1960, who used the New Frontier to recast the challenge with the Soviet Union; Richard Nixon in 1968, who demanded "respect for law all over this nation" and elevated racial politics; Jimmy Carter in 1976, who ran on trust and reform in the aftermath of Watergate; and George W. Bush in 2000, who ran on restoring "honor and dignity to the White House" in the aftermath of the Clinton impeachment. Running against the economic tides, the insurgent campaign has to be very good to win -- and you can sense Vavreck's admiration for these campaigns, particularly Kennedy's.

So, knowing whom the economy benefits and whether a candidate seizes that advantage allows you to predict the winner 92 percent of the time, but it gets you, on average, only within 4.5 points of the winner's portion of the two-way vote, which is not good enough in my world. But when both candidates act consistently with the model -- clarifying candidates maximizing the economy and insurgent candidates maximizing a non-economic issue -- Vavreck's estimate gets to within 1.7 points of the winning vote proportion. Strategy and message do indeed matter.

You come away from this book with a new respect for the power of the economy. While other issues matter in elections, when a presidential candidate focuses on the economy, voters are more likely to listen and more likely to use the economy in assessing the candidates. But you also come away with a new respect for the campaign and candidate. The campaigns that understand the times and run the right clarifying or insurgent strategy add 6 points to their vote share.

Although Vavreck draws heavily on quantitative data and modeling, she conveys a sense of excitement about her breakthrough in understanding how presidential elections work. Human decisions matter: Campaigns can rise above the dull determinism of the economy. And voters are fairly discerning about what campaigns are saying on issues that matter to them.

During the 1992 campaign, James Carville famously pinned the words "It's the economy, stupid" on a column in the war room. But the potency of those words came in the relentless contrast with a clueless George H.W. Bush, who tried to convince voters that the modest growth of the previous three months showed things were fine. Our ads asked, simply, "How ya doin'?" We unveiled our economic plan almost six months before the election and devoted much of our advertising to its promise of 8 million jobs. In the final week, Bush's campaign tried to divert us by focusing its entire attack on trust and inexperience, calling Clinton a "failed governor of a small state." Although Clinton desperately wanted to defend his honor, we did not respond and closed instead with an ad on our economic plan, scrolling the Nobel laureate economists and corporate leaders who said it would lead to a growing economy.

Election 2000 is a controversial case. Since Gore won the popular vote -- and almost certainly Florida -- perhaps we should be discussing how clever his campaign was. But let's accept the Electoral College's outcome for the moment.

The unanswered question in the book is why Gore did not run on the Clinton economy in a conventional clarifying campaign. The answer is his campaign tried to, but continuity in 2000 was fraught with contradictions -- including Gore's own personal difficulty in embracing it. In our polls, half the country wanted to continue with the direction of the Clinton economy, but an equal number wanted just as strongly to change direction from the values of the Clinton White House. After lagging badly in the polls, Gore marched out of the convention under the banner "Let's make sure our prosperity enriches not just the few, but all working families" and took a sustained lead into the debates. The message made the economy the main topic without fully embracing continuity. We planned for Gore to clash on the economy with George W. Bush in the final debate and to run ads on it in the final three weeks. But Gore had his own debate strategy and way of dealing with the Clinton legacy and nearly collared Bush. We still ran the ads on the economy, and Gore did win the popular vote.

Vavreck's analysis ends with the 2000 election, but there were already hints beginning in the 1990s that growth in gross domestic product might no longer bring generalized prosperity and employment gains. As I write in my book, Dispatches from the War Room, national leaders often want to tout macroeconomic growth before it has produced gains that people see firsthand. The Democrats lost in 1994 as Clinton spoke prematurely of his economic successes, though by 1996 real gains in income helped produce a very different outcome.

The 1990s may have been a precursor of the weak post-2001 recovery that was slow in producing jobs and broad-based gains in income, and nearly everyone expects the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009 to be followed by, at best, halting growth for President Barack Obama. The message will matter in 2010 and 2012, more than ever.

You may also like