In The American Prospect TDS Co-Editor Stan Greenberg reviews an important new book by Lynn Vavreck, “The Message Matters.” Greenberg, whose strategic advice was instrumental in electing and re-electing Bill Clinton and helping Al Gore win the popular vote in 2000, says that Vavreck “breaks new ground in showing how presidential candidates effectively use the economy when it works in their favor and how some candidates win even when the economy is working against them.” In his review, Greenberg explains:
For decades political scientists have tried to predict the outcome of elections by constructing statistical models that use different measures of economic performance and ignore the character of the candidates and the choices of their campaigns. As a pollster who has helped direct campaigns, I have never found these academic models all that convincing. Missing the final vote by up to 8 points, as their forecasts often do, would have gotten me fired. And in most presidential elections, predicting the winner is not rocket science, and barbers and bartenders do as well as the modelers.
With considerable elegance, Vavreck departs from the dominant tradition in election forecasting by focusing on the strategies that candidates follow, including the narratives they build, and by showing respect for what voters learn from the campaigns. Voters do use the economy to judge the incumbent’s leadership and project future performance, but in some elections they also respond to other issues such as trust, domestic policy, and national security.
According to Vavreck’s analysis, if you want to know who wins the presidency and by how much, you start with the candidate who has been helped by the economy during the nine months before July 1 of the election year. If the economy has been growing, that’s the candidate of the incumbent party; if the economy has been stagnant or declining, it’s the challenger. Each of these is in a position to run what Vavreck calls a “clarifying campaign.” That is an appealing phrase for me, as it implies that what counts is not just the economy but how a campaign frames the economic argument to political effect.
…Strategy and message do indeed matter. You come away from this book with a new respect for the power of the economy. While other issues matter in elections, when a presidential candidate focuses on the economy, voters are more likely to listen and more likely to use the economy in assessing the candidates. But you also come away with a new respect for the campaign and candidate. The campaigns that understand the times and run the right clarifying or insurgent strategy add 6 points to their vote share.
Although Vavreck draws heavily on quantitative data and modeling, she conveys a sense of excitement about her breakthrough in understanding how presidential elections work. Human decisions matter: Campaigns can rise above the dull determinism of the economy. And voters are fairly discerning about what campaigns are saying on issues that matter to them.
Greenberg moves toward his conclusion with a comment that may be particularly important for team Obama to fully-appreciate:
As I write in my book, “Dispatches from the War Room“, national leaders often want to tout macroeconomic growth before it has produced gains that people see firsthand. The Democrats lost in 1994 as Clinton spoke prematurely of his economic successes, though by 1996 real gains in income helped produce a very different outcome.
Given current economic forecasts of “at best, halting growth” in the months ahead, Greenberg concludes “The message will matter in 2010 and 2012, more than ever.”