Obama May Need To Emulate Bush’s 2004 Mistake

Matt Yglesias dings the nascent Obama re-election campaign today for the idea, delivered via New York Times’ political editor Richard Stevenson, that a clever 2012 plan would be to follow the essence of George W. Bush’s successful 2004 re-election strategy. Here’s how Stevenson characterizes the parallels:

Can Mr. Obama overcome the bad economy, and perhaps even turn it to his advantage in certain ways, in the same way President George W. Bush overcame and in a sense turned to his advantage the bloody, expensive and increasingly unpopular war in Iraq eight years ago?

And can Mr. Obama do to his opponent – for now let’s say Mitt Romney – what Mr. Bush did to Senator John Kerry in 2004?

Yglesias says “that this theory is based on a largely mythical recollection of what happened in 2004” since Kerry actually did better than he was expected to do with anti-Bush voters. On that score, I think Yglesias is largely right. It’s debatable how strong of a candidate Kerry was (Weisberg and Christenson 2005 suggest that at least in terms of candidate traits he was weaker than most modern Democratic candidates), but he still performed strongly at the polls and forced Bush to do worse than predicted even as he was favored to be re-elected based on the fundamentals of the campaign.

But there is at least one aspect of the Bush strategy that Obama may want to follow, at least in the general sense.

Later in Stevenson’s article, he paraphrases Bush advisor Mark McKinnon saying, “once Mr. Bush and his team settled on a message in 2004 built around national security, they stuck with it, day in, day out.” So, in other words, the Bush campaign chose to make national security rather than the economy the central issue of the campaign. This may or may not have been a wise decision since “the economic fundamentals of the 2004 election might best be described as neutral or tilting slightly in favor of the incumbent.”

In her 2008 book, The Message Matters, political scientist Lynn Vavreck created a typology of presidential campaigns based on whether or not the economy was predicted to help or hurt a candidate. If the economy was seen as positive for a candidate — either the in-party candidate in a good economy or the out-party candidate in a bad economy — then they should run what she called a clarifying campaign in which they talk about the economy more than anything else. If the economy is seen as negative for a candidate, they should run an insurgent campaign in which they attempt to focus the agenda on an issue other than the economy, particularly one in which they benefit from public opinion more than their opponent and on which their opponent is constrained by previous positions.

Though Bush should have, according to Vavreck, run as a clarifying candidate as the economy at least didn’t hurt him, he essentially ran as an incumbent insurgent. Additionally, he picked an issue that Kerry was likely to be constrained on given his vote for the Iraq war and his easily caricatured efforts to explain it.  But the Iraq War appears to have hurt Bush at the ballot box, so this might have been a bad strategy and Bush may have performed better if he had chosen to focus more on the economy.

Given the state of the economy, President Obama is going to have to run an insurgent campaign. So, if he is going to emulate Bush’s 2004 campaign in any way, the choice to shift the agenda to something other than the economy is likely the right move. Insurgents have won before, including Bush in 2000, but more often than not in the modern era, the clarifying candidate is the winning candidate. Indeed, as John Sides has noted, the only two incumbents who have been forced to run insurgent campaigns against opponents running on the economy both lost. As Sides says, “finding the issue that neutralizes a weak economy is hard.”

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