What if what everyone knows about presidential elections is wrong?
Everyone knows vice presidential candidates don’t matter. Except that on August 11, the day Paul Ryan was announced, Mitt Romney trailed by almost 5 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics average of polls. Two weeks later Romney had pulled to within 1 point—his strongest rally of the general election season.
Everyone knows that when a president is running for reelection, the race is a judgment on the incumbent—and that if the country isn’t in great shape, it’s very much in the challenger’s interest to keep the focus on the incumbent. Make it a referendum on the president. Don’t let the incumbent make it a choice.
Except that with the Ryan pick, the race became much more of a choice and less of a referendum—and Romney has been doing better (see item one). Perhaps the marginal utility of repeating to voters for the 999th time that Obama-nomics isn’t working so well is low, while the marginal gain of convincing voters you do have a plan to solve the problems afflicting us can be considerable. The American public has twice in the past 80 years chosen to replace presidents running for reelection—in 1980 and 1992. The challengers, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, were unembarrassed to make their own positive, forward-looking case for election. Perhaps the American people recall that the Constitution makes no mention of a referendum. It specifies rather that the “President of the United States of America . . . shall, together with the Vice-President chosen for the same term, be elected as follows.” We have an election for president that’s a choice between alternatives. This reflects our commitment to governing ourselves by “reflection and choice” (Federalist No. 1), not by reaction and referendum.
Everyone knows “it’s the economy, stupid.” Except it’s not simply the economy. The economic situation hasn’t changed in Missouri during the past week, nor have the economic agendas of the two senatorial candidates. But it turns out the public cares about the character and intelligence of those presenting themselves for election. The public also cares about what those candidates say, and what they would do, about a lot of noneconomic issues. The public cares about our troops fighting in Afghanistan, and whether their sacrifices will be in vain or not. The public cares whether Iran gets nuclear weapons. The public cares about marriage and morals, and about freedom and opportunity. Voters are, especially in hard times, certainly concerned about their pocketbooks—but they’re also concerned about the lessons they draw from their prayer books and their social studies books.
Everyone knows that the American people can’t understand a debate about abstractions like the national debt, entitlements, Obamacare, and sound money. Except that 2010 was the biggest Republican victory in decades, and came as Tea Party-inspired GOP candidates focused on these issues even as most voters still blamed a Republican, George W. Bush, for the weak economy.
Everyone knows that social issues are death for Republicans. Except that traditional marriage wins in states where Republican presidential candidates lose, and except that surveys show that Americans would prefer that abortions be rare and not performed on children partially born or almost ready to be born, and except that Americans care that religious liberty be protected and not curbed.
Finally, everyone knows that what a campaign is about is finding a path to victory, and that means taking polls and focus groups and microtargeting very seriously.
Except that all of this planning and strategizing—while necessary—can easily become a fatal conceit on the part of campaign pros, which in turn produces a demoralizing civic spectacle even for their own potential supporters. What if a campaign focused first and foremost on laying out a serious governing agenda, on making clear what’s at stake in the choice before us, and on explaining why its nominees should be entrusted with the responsibility to lead the nation?
Everyone knows that wouldn’t work. Everyone knows the American people are stupid. Except what if they’re not?