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Friday, December 30, 2011

Playing With the Pundits – How a Bad Economy Might Help Obama

Heading into Election Year 2012, I expect we’re going to start seeing even more attempts to extrapolate from past elections in order to predict what will happen next November.  Such is Susan Milligan’s U.S. News and World Report column, “2012 Republicans Risk Repeating John Kerry’s 2004 Mistakes.”

I certainly don’t have any problem with such columns.  I’m fond of political speculation myself, and whenever I think I’ve come up with something worthwhile I make sure to post it here so we can all go back and laugh at it when I am proved to be terribly, terribly wrong.  But there are two things about Milligan’s column – one bad, one good – to which I want to draw attention.

The bad thing is minor, and it is simply an example of writers’ natural tendency when attempting to draw parallels between events to massage facts in order to better fit the point they wish to make.  Specifically, in arguing that presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney may end up mirroring John Kerry’s failed bid to oust George Dubya in 2004 Milligan asserts that “[l]ike Kerry, Romney has a solid resume in government.”

Uhhmmm . . . no.  John Kerry was Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts from 1983 to 1985, when he became a U.S. Senator.  When he ran for the presidency in 2004, he had been a U.S. Senator for nearly 20 years.  Mitt Romney, on the other hand, is the one-term Governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2005 who did not seek re-election because his tenure was so unpopular that he was dead certain to lose that bid.  Claiming that Romney’s background in politics is “solid” like Kerry’s is just silly.

The good thing I want to discuss isn’t a criticism of the Milligan’s column, but mere something she points out that I think bodes well for Barack Obama’s chances in next year’s election:  the fact that, generally speaking, it is insufficient to rely on an incumbent’s unpopularity in order to unseat that incumbent.  A political challenger must also present a clear contrasting message that resonates with voters. 

This is very probably due to most people’s aversion to loss.  Kevin Drum made this point in an interesting way a week or so ago in a post he wrote about the Affordable Care Act:

I just finished reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, which naturally got me thinking about Prospect Theory, one of my favorite socio-econo-behavioral theories of the past few decades.  There’s a lot to Prospect Theory, but its most famous aspect is its focus on loss aversion.  Most people, it turns out, aren’t so much risk averse as they are loss averse:  they prefer a sure gain over a gamble for a bigger gain, but they prefer a gamble when the alternative is a sure loss.  Bottom line, people really, really hate to lose things that they already have.  (emphasis added)

This matches up fairly closely with my own understanding of how people chose their candidates when times are tough.  I remember trying to persuade people in 2004 that Bush had done enough damage to the country and that it was time to throw the bum out, and the conversation usually went like this:

ME:                 Look, Iraq is a disaster, the economy isn’t doing great, we’re spending all this money, losing lives with no end in sight . . . we gotta get somebody else in there who can fix this mess.

OTHER:          Like who, Kerry?  I don’t know, man, I just don’t know where he stands on things.

ME:                 Well, I think I do but what does Kerry’s position really matter when we do know what Dubya stands for?

OTHER:          Well, Kerry could be worse, you know.

ME:                 How?  How could Kerry be worse?  No, you know what?  It doesn’t even matter.  Let’s assume that Kerry could be worse than what we’ve got, but we can’t even tell.  Are you with me so far?

OTHER:          Yeah.

ME:                 Okay, now let’s try a thought experiment.  Suppose you are holding in your right hand a big pile of dog shit.  A huge, steaming, stinky pile of dog shit.  And suppose you are holding in your left hand a Mystery Box.  You don’t know what’s inside the Mystery Box, it could be anything.  It could be the Ebola virus, or CancerAids.  But it could be a thousand dollar bill.  Or keys to a new car.  Hell, it could be Denny’s coupon.  It could be whatever.  You understand?

OTHER:          Yeah.

ME:                 Okay, now here’s the thing.  You have to choose between keeping the big, steaming pile of dog shit you have in your right hand – you’ve got to keep holding it for four more years – or throwing that dog shit away and keeping instead whatever is in the Mystery Box.  What do you want to do?

OTHER:          Is there really such a thing as CancerAids?

ME:                 . . . . .  Never mind.

Even better is this classic 2004 article by Chris Hayes, in which Hayes describes how difficult he found it to reach out to undecided voters when he was actually working for Kerry’s 2004 campaign:

Liberal commentators, and even many conservative ones, assumed, not unreasonably, that the awful situation in Iraq would prove to be the [Dubya’s] undoing.  But I found that the very severity and intractability of the Iraq disaster helped Bush because it induced a kind of fatalism about the possibility of progress. . . .  Yeah, but what’s Kerry gonna do? voters would ask me, and when I told them Kerry would bring in allies they would wave their hands and smile with condescension, as if that answer was impossibly naive.  C’mon, they’d say, you don’t really think that’s going to work, do you?

To be sure, maybe they simply thought Kerry’s promise to bring in allies was a lame idea – after all, many well-informed observers did.  But I became convinced that there was something else at play here, because undecided voters extended the same logic to other seemingly intractable problems, like the deficit or health care.  On these issues, too, undecideds recognized the severity of the situation – but precisely because they understood the severity, they were inclined to be skeptical of Kerry’s ability to fix things. . . .  [T]he staggering incompetence and irresponsibility of the Bush administration and the demonstrable poor state of world affairs seemed to serve not as indictments of Bush in particular, but rather of politicians in general.  Kerry, by mere dint of being on the ballot, was somehow tainted by Bush’s failures as badly as Bush was.

As a result, undecideds seemed oddly unwilling to hold the president accountable for his previous actions, focusing instead on the practical issue of who would have a better chance of success in the future.  Because undecideds seemed uninterested in assessing responsibility for the past, Bush suffered no penalty for having made things so bad; and because undecideds were focused on, but cynical about, the future, the worse things appeared, the less inclined they were to believe that problems could be fixed – thereby nullifying the backbone of Kerry’s case.  Needless to say, I found this logic maddening.

A lot of people – including Susan Milligan – keep saying that if the economy doesn’t improve that will severely weaken Obama going into next year’s election.  But I tend to think that Milligan is also right that the GOP nominee – no matter who that turns out to be – is only going to be able to capitalize on that weakness if he can present a clear and believable vision of a way forward.  And – perversely – the worse things get, the less likely undecided voters are going to feel that any vision of the way forward is believable. 

As Kevin Drum points out, people aren’t risk averse they are loss averse.  People already know what they have with Obama.  If they don’t know what they have with Romney – and, really, who can? – I think they are going to be much less inclined to vote Obama out of office no matter how bad things get.

So, y’know . . . Yay, Obama, I suppose.

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