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.


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