It’s not the economy, stupid!
Tonight’s debate could be the most negative presidential debate ever. That’s because the best thing each candidate has going for him is negative opinion of the other guy.
This election was supposed to be a referendum on President Barack Obama. That’s what usually happens when an incumbent is running for re-election. Sometimes the incumbent is popular enough to win re-election (Ronald Reagan in 1984, Bill Clinton in 1996). Sometimes he’s not (Jimmy Carter in 1980, George H.W. Bush in 1992).
The biggest single factor determining the incumbent’s popularity is the economy: good in 1984 and 1996, terrible in 1980 and 1992. By that standard, Obama should be in deep trouble. That’s the big surprise this year. He’s not.
If Obama were running against himself this year, he would lose. But he’s running against Mitt Romney – and that is a race he can win.
He can win because Democrats have managed to frame the election as a choice – not a referendum. It’s not just “keep Obama or fire him”. It’s “keep Obama or hire Romney”. And the simple fact is, most voters don’t want to hire Romney.
The Pew poll reports that “Romney is the only presidential candidate over the past seven election cycles [since at least 1988] to be viewed more unfavorably than favorably” by voters. Even losers like Michael Dukakis (1988), George H.W. Bush (1992), Bob Dole (1996) and John Kerry (2004) had a positive image. Not Romney.
When Mother Jones magazine leaked a video of Romney’s remarks at a Florida fundraiser last month, the effect was devastating. The Republican candidate came across as disdainful of Americans who depend on the government safety net, depicting them as slackers and freeloaders. Look at the polls of battleground state voters since Sept. 17, when the video was released. Every state shows a widening lead for Obama.
This election is a choice between two contenders. That’s what makes it different from the 2010 midterm. In 2010, there was no other guy. It was just an up-or-down vote on Obama and the economy. The result was a catastrophic defeat for Democrats.
Romney’s mission will be to focus on Obama’s failed record. He started with his acceptance speech at the Republican convention, when he spoke about Obama more in sorrow than in anger. “I wish President Obama had succeeded,” Romney said, “because I want America to succeed. But his promises gave way to disappointment and division.”
By naming Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin to the ticket, however, Romney took the focus off the economy. Republicans should be discussing jobs. Instead, they’re discussing Medicare.
There’s something very strange about the economic issue this year. Most objective indicators show that the economic recovery has stalled. The unemployment rate has been stuck at more than 8 percent all year. Job growth is less than 100,000 a month – not enough to keep up with the growing labor force. The Commerce Department revealed that economic growth in the second quarter of this year was just 1.3 percent. The Federal Reserve has just announced a new drive to revive the economy. As Paul Ryan put it: “The Federal Reserve is saying that we don’t have a recovery.”
At the same time, subjective indicators are improving. Consumer confidence is up. The number of voters who believe the country is headed in the right direction is the highest it has been since 2009, according to the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. So is the number who believe the economy will get better in the next year. Most Americans think the nation’s economy is recovering.
What’s driving the optimism? Politics. Optimism about the economy is growing fastest among Democrats. It’s their way of expressing confidence in Obama. Instead of the weak economy dragging Obama down, the president’s growing popularity is pulling economic confidence up.
Most forecasting models assume that the economy is the cause and the election is the effect. That may be backwards.
Just as it was in 1992. The economy was actually recovering in 1992. But voters refused to acknowledge it because they had lost confidence in President George H.W. Bush. He didn’t seem to be doing anything to boost the economy, and that made the economy seem worse.
Moreover, Bush seemed hopelessly out of touch with ordinary Americans. Message to Romney: Whatever you do in this debate, don’t look at your watch.