Everyone’s talking about the economy. Everyone including John McCain – and if there’s one person in America right now who shouldn’t be talking about our economic woes, it’s John McCain. McCain said today, “the economy is about to crater” while simultaneously an ABC News/Washington Post poll reported that Barack Obama had surged ahead with a 9-point lead and that most Americans think Obama will better resolve the nation’s economic woes.
Using terminology from The Message Matters (forthcoming from Princeton University Press), McCain is an insurgent candidate who needs to focus the election off of the economy and on to some other issue on which he is closer than Obama to most voters – and on which Obama is committed to an unpopular position. Hmm. Not an easy task. Obama, on the other hand, is what I call a clarifying candidate – merely clarifying the fact that the other party is responsible for the current economic mess.
Why does McCain face this tough insurgent job? He is a member of the party that brought about this period of economic decline. Everyone knows the state of the nation’s economy predicts election outcomes quite well. The table below uses a variety of models to generate predictions and compares them to actual outcomes. You’ll see that the models often correctly predict the winning party (although they do a lousy job at predicting the point estimates). The models miss in three years (or four if you count 2000): 1960, 1968, and 1976. All very close elections. Let’s take a look.
Range of Economic Forecasting Predictions and Actual Two-Party Vote Share from Four Popular Forecasting Models
Range of Predictions
Note: Range of forecasts includes predictions from models of
Wlezien and Erikson Campbell, Abramowitz, and Holbrook.
The structure, the state of the nation’s economy, is a powerful predictor of election outcomes. But, the relationship is not perfect. And in a year with so many “firsts” maybe history isn’t such a good guide.
Still though, if you were McCain, you’d have to be willing to take a big risk if you thought Obama wouldn’t benefit from the nation’s economic situation. Assuming McCain’s campaign is smart enough to realize this historical trend, what can McCain learn from the candidates in the past who have overcome the structural conditions? How have previous candidates beaten economically advantaged candidates? To answer this question, I read every campaign stump speech, newspaper article in the New York Times and Washington Post, and watched every campaign ad made in the last 50 or so years.
In 1960, John Kennedy made the entire election into an all-out battle with the Russians. They had more missiles than us, their kids were smarter, and they were going to beat us to the moon. Because Americans feared the communists and because Nixon was a part of the administration that brought about the “gaps” – Kennedy was able to leverage this dimension and win by a very narrow margin. In 1968 Richard Nixon talked mainly about making the streets safe again and reducing crime. People were frightened in the late sixties – there was violence everywhere (in Vietnam, on college campuses, in city centers) and people did not feel safe walking in their own neighborhoods after dark. Nixon leveraged this fear and the correlation between crime and race to refocus the election off of the economy and on to safety, crime, and although implicitly, race. He also wins by a very narrow margin. And, finally, in 1976 Jimmy Carter ran as a Washington outsider reminding voters that Gerald Ford had been appointed to the Vice Presidency and the Presidency – and, that he pardoned Richard Nixon. Watergate loomed large over the 1976 election, and Ford didn’t help his chances by reminding voters that “our long national nightmare is over.” Kennedy, Nixon (1960), and Carter (1976) leveraged dimensions on which their opponents were weak. These candidates were not predicted to win based on the nation’s economy, but they refocused the election off of the economy and on to something else on which they had an advantage. They had great insurgent issues.
What is McCain’s insurgent issue? He is spending an awful lot of time talking about the economy, which can only help Obama. Let’s look at the candidates since 1952 in McCain’s position who campaigned on the economy even though it advantaged the other party: George McGovern, George H.W. Bush (1992), and Bob Dole. Bush and Dole talked mainly about tax cuts and McGovern talked mostly about tax reform. Of these candidates, only Bush was a member of the incumbent party – and in fact, he was the actual incumbent candidate. Talking about the economy when it helps the other guy is not a great insurgent issue. No insurgent candidate in the last half-century has beaten the predicted economic winner by talking about the economy more than anything else.
So, when McCain says he wants to postpone Friday’s debate until a compromise and a deal is reached to bailout the nation’s struggling, “cratering” economy – I say, “I’ll bet he does.” Any time McCain is talking about the economy he is not talking about his insurgent issue, which means he is not making progress toward refocusing the election off of the economy and on to his issue. Unfortunately, the dramatic manner in which he suspended his campaign and shuffled off to Washington only underscores the importance of the economy as an issue in this election.
And yes, Barack Obama is black. And yes, John McCain is a bi-partisan legislator and a maverick – but – John McCain is a Republican and his party will be blamed for the crater into which he has just crawled. History tells us there is only one way out: stop talking about the economy and make this election about something else -- something on which McCain holds an advantage vis-à-vis Obama and something on which Obama is committed to his unpopular position. With fewer than 50 days left, McCain has his work cut out for him.