Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Economy and the Presidential Race, Part II

In Part I, we discussed how the economy will affect the 2012 presidential race. If the economy had made a stronger recovery by this point, Barack Obama could credibly run a version of the 1984 "Morning in America" reelection campaign. Given the state of the economy and how little time is left for it to improve, Obama's odds of winning reelection have been harmed. But Mitt Romney cannot defeat the incumbent president merely by pointing to a stagnant economy. Obama can still win if he is able to persuade voters that Romney's handling of the economy would be even worse. Today, we will examine how that argument fits into what will become a fundamental dynamic of the race.

When voters develop the opinions on which they base their vote, they do so by forming general impressions about things. They may study specifics and details, but they usually remember only generalities; specifics primarily serve to help voters develop those general impressions. Thus, we can expect that on election day 2012, voters will not be basing their votes on data and economic theory. Instead, they will vote based on the general impressions they have about how Obama and Romney will handle the economy. The impressions they will form may be called "Old," "Current," and "New."

"Current," is the general impression that voters currently have about the economy and how Obama is handling it. Most voters are dissatisfied with the economy and have little hope that a dramatic improvement will take place in the near future. Voters also believe Obama has done little or nothing to spark a real improvement in the economy. Partly that's because of the choices Obama made during his first term. While the Democrats had control of Congress, they spent much of their time on Obamacare and some legislation that never passed (e.g. cap and trade). From 2010 onward, Republicans have been able to block unpopular Democratic policies, and Democrats have been able to block Republican policies.

Therefore, Obama is stuck with the "Current" impression, one which voters don't particularly like. That's why his reelection bid is in peril. By contrast, voters' impression about the way Romney will handle the economy is not yet set in stone. There are two possibilities for Romney: "Old" and "New."

"Old" is the general impression the voters have about the way the economy functioned prior to Obama's presidency, under George W. Bush. Although voters were somewhat satisfied with the economy during some of Bush's presidency (enough to get him reelected), that impression was altered by the catastrophic events of late 2008 and early 2009. Voters are uncertain of the cause of the economic meltdown, but they know Bush was in charge for nearly eight years before it occurred.

Needless to say, voters do not approve of the "Old" impression because they do not want to relive the economic panic that occurred. Arguably, they view the "Old" as worse than the "Current." At the very least, "Old" is not superior enough to "Current" to overcome the inertia of incumbency.

But is Romney stuck with the "Old" impression? No, not necessarily. Romney can focus his campaign on leading the country's economy in a different direction than those of Obama and Bush. Romney will prevail if he can give voters a "New" impression. Obama will oppose him by telling voters that Romney would simply rehash the Bush policies. According to Obama, Romney represents the "Old" that was rejected in 2008. This will become a main battle--if not the main battle--of the campaign.

The outcome of the 2012 election is uncertain because neither side has engaged in this battle yet. Obama's advantage is that he can put pressure on Romney to disavow Bush's policies, encouraging a split in the Republican Party that remains loyal to Bush. To the extent that Romney actually does intend to rehash Bush's policies, that is also advantageous to Obama.

Romney has some advantages of his own. First, the burden is on Obama to establish that Romney is a retread of Bush. Otherwise, voters may assume Romney is something "New" out of sheer optimism. Superficially, Romney is not similar to Bush. Voters associate Bush with Texas and the South. They saw Bush as genial and comfortable in his own skin, but unintelligent and unable to communicate. Romney is associated with the Northeast. He is viewed as intelligent and well-educated, but also as someone from a wealthier class who has difficulty relating to the average person. All of these superficial differences increase the difficulty of painting a Romney presidency as Bush's third term.

Romney's final advantage is his strongest one: He has control of his own message. He is free to choose the policies he wants to pursue, whether they are echoes of Bush or solutions he develops on his own. Based on what Romney decides to do and say, he can put as much or as little distance between himself and Bush as he wants.