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Our own Genghis recently wrote a post that posed the rhetorical question, "Why should you vote for Obama?" The purpose of his post seemed to be to spark thought and discussion about what Obama's potential campaign paths might be in the face of expectedly dreary economic conditions during the 2012 cycle, which reminded of a new model of presidential elections by UCLA's Lynn Vavreck.
Vavreck, an associate professor of Political Science at UCLA, outlines her model in her book entitled The Message Matters: The Economy and Presidential Campaigns. Lest you think that this is simply one more analytical study that flogs the importance of the economy in campaigns, Vavreck's model stands out because it seeks to understand how successful candidates use the economy (or don't) in their campaign messaging and how this impacts the campaign.
The basis of Vavreck's model is the application of economic conditions to the current "in"-party and "out"-party. Whichever party is currently being helped by economic conditions, usually the "in"-party in times good and the "out"-party in times bad, should run what Vavreck labels the "clarifying" campaign. This is precisely what you might expect: If the economic winds are at your party's back, then you campaign on the economy.
But there's another successful campaign style that Vavreck's study illuminates, which she labels the "insurgent" campaign. The insurgent campaign relies on identifying an unpopular position of your economically enabled opponent, but the key is that this must be a position that the candidate cannot easily walk away from, which allows the insurgent candidate to define a non-economic difference. According to Vavreck, insurgent campaigns have been successful even in the face of prevailing economic winds on several notable occasions.
Vavreck conducted her study by coding literally thousands upon thousands of data points gathered from candidate advertising, speeches and media coverage of campaigns over the last half-century. To further explicate her findings, here's former Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg from his review:
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.
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.
So, knowing whom the economy benefits and whether a candidate seizes that advantage allows you to predict the winner 93 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.
If you're familiar with poli-sci models of elections, predicting outcomes with 93% accuracy and within 1.7% of the winning vote proportion is pretty impressive. Assuming that Vavreck's findings and subsequent claims are accurate, hers is the best predictive model of presidential election outcomes of which I am aware. So, let's consider the upcoming election in the light of Vavreck's model. First, two assumptions:
1. The economy will remain sufficiently lousy through 2012 such that Obama cannot run a clarifying campaign.
2. The GOP nominee, whoever that ends up being, will run a clarifying campaign.
If these assumptions hold, then Obama should run an insurgent campaign according to Vavreck's model. The question then becomes what his insurgent issue will be. As Genghis observed in his post, this style of campaign could pose problems for team Obama to the extent that a difference-defining issue could well require that they go "negative."
This leads me to think that Obama's opponent will perhaps make the biggest difference in 2012. While it would be very easy to find a difference-defining issue that could contrast Obama with, say, Michelle Bachmann, it would not be so easy to find such an issue campaigning against Jon Hunstman or Mitt Romney. Whereas Bachmann has taken public, unpopular stands on many issues, running an insurgent campaign against the more centrist candidates could prove daunting for a campaign team that is reticent to get negative or even personal.