Elections Are a Choice of Candidates

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Elections Are a Choice of Candidates

If the title of this post seems a bit self-evident, that is deliberate. It serves as a reminder that no matter how badly Republicans want to make the election of 2012 a simple up-or-down referendum on the happiness of Americans with life since the begnning of 2009, they cannot entirely evade responsibility their own records, agenda and candidates.

Lord knows they seem to want to. Jay Cost of The Weekly Standard, one of the more reasonable and empirically-oriented Republican analysts, did a column today where he in essence stamps his foot and demands that Barack Obama stop drawing attention to the GOP and to Mitt Romney. It's really almost funny:

Typically, successful reelection campaigns - e.g. 1936, 1956, 1972, 1984, and 1996 - have been based on narratives about how the country has turned a corner, thanks to the incumbent’s greatness. Think “Nixon’s The One!” “It’s Morning In America” or “Bridge To The 21st Century.” None of that applies to President Obama, who instead looks to tar Mitt Romney as the evil stepchild of J.P. Morgan and Barry Goldwater....
This, put simply, is Barack Obama’s problem. If the 2012 election is framed on “are you better off than you were four years ago?,” then he is going to lose. His record on the economy, the deficit, energy policy, and health care are all very unpopular.
So, Obama’s objective is to get the country to think about other things. In particular, he has of late employed a series of gimmicks to induce the country to conceive of Mitt Romney in the above terms. The whole “war on women” is exactly along those lines, as is the Buffett Rule. Both speak to the core strategy - Romney is a conservative radical and tool of big business who wants to deprive women of birth control and help only the rich get richer.

Put aside the obvious quibbles with Jay's characterization of every successful re-election as being the product of sunny, positive messages that ignore the opposition (Nixon '72, Clinton '96, Bush '04 obviously involved a lot of negative or "comparative" campaigning). More fundamentally, when you go to the polls, you are not going to be handed a ballot offering you an up-or-down vote on whether you think America is in better shape than it was four years ago. Of course incumbents are greatly affected by perceptions of their performance; it probably is the single most important factor affecting the outcome of the election, and if the economy just plain out tanks between now and November, we are likely looking down the long barrel of a Romney administration.

But the incumbent's record is not the only factor, and it's increasingly ridiculous to hear Republicans complain that Obama needs to just take his medicine and not try to confuse voters with information about the opposition. If they wanted a pure "referendum" election, they should have themselves performed a bit better during their last period in power, and should not have spent most of the Obama administration indulging themselves in an ideological bender that makes references to J.P. Morgan and Barry Goldwater all too credible.

In his determination to rule out the possibility that Obama's reelection strategy could work, Cost even goes so far as to tell swing voters what they have to care about:

I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that the average swing voter does not want to talk about the “war on women,” the Buffett rule, or whatever else Team Obama is going to throw out there in the weeks and months to come. That voter wants to talk about jobs, the economy, the deficit, gas prices, the health care bill--in other words, all the issues where the president is vulnerable.

While I don't know for sure what the mood of swing voters--defined, as Ruy Teixeira has recently explained, as all persuadable voters, not just some predefined class of center-right self-identified independents--is going to be this fall. But you know what? Neither does Jay Cost, much less Karl Rove, whose tirade against Obama's comparative campaigning begins Jay's column. Seeking to shape the perceptions of persuadable voters about the choices involved in an election is the primary task of political campaigns. And it's absurd to expect the Obama campaign to just throw in the towel from the get-go.