By Rosella Age
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?