Moving from the Debt Ceiling Debate to 2012

In a series of four posts, I have been trying to push a three-pronged argument about the political and electoral impact of the debt ceiling debate, with some broader implications for elections generally.  Reading the recent reactions of Christopher Shea at the Wall Street Journal and M.S. at The Economist, I realize that I need to be clearer.

Point #1.  The economy matters most.

Many commentators interpret political battles in terms of tactical victories and defeats that do not, in and of themselves, affect election outcomes.  At worst, these interpretations feature references to the “optics” of such-and-such, as in this Ross Douthat column on Obama as a “diminished president.”  When someone cites “optics” as evidence, they are tacitly admitting that they have none.

The reason for me to continue to drone on about the economy is because the debt ceiling battle seems pretty consequential for the economy.  A default would probably have hurt the economy.  The debt ceiling deal could easily make the economy worse; it certainly won’t make it better.  See here, among many others.  This is bad for Obama and it may be bad for incumbents in Congress as well.  Sorry to repeat myself for the millionth time.

Point #2.  Process matters little, if at all.

I wrote that—contra some in the Obama administration—independents do not care a lot about whether Obama appears to be a reasonable compromising kind of fellow.  First, back to point #1: independents are influenced by the state of the economy, more so than partisans.  Second, it’s more important whether a debt ceiling deal helps inoculate Obama against GOP attacks citing the deficit and government spending and even helps him campaign actively on those issues, given that the GOP’s position is arguably further away from voters’ than is his.

Shea writes:

On the other hand, Sides does say that the President’s concessions make him less vulnerable to attacks, in 2012, suggesting he doesn’t care about deficits. So has Sides identified an error in strategy, or are he and the President’s strategists saying the same thing, only framing it differently?

This is not just a matter of framing.  It’s a pretty fundamental difference about  what matters to voters: whether Obama looks bipartisan or whether he has a defensible or even popular position on a specific policy issue.

Point #3.  The campaign will matter too.

M.S. writes:

I don’t see how anyone could disagree with Mr Sides and Mr Yglesias [JMS: link] that the economy is the overwhelming determinant of presidential election outcomes, given the data. But I still think the way they discount the activities of political operatives phrases things a bit misleadingly.

M.S. goes on to argue that maybe the economy matters only because the U.S. has two parties whose presidential nominees are relatively evenly matched in terms of resources.

I don’t think I’ve said any that is misleading.  In fact, if you go back to these posts, you’ll see that I am arguing that the campaign—and thus the “activities of political operatives”—may matter.  This is the whole point behind my discussion of Lynn Vavreck’s The Message Matters. She argues that, yes, economic conditions have a powerful impact on presidential elections.  But when those conditions favor a candidate, it matters whether the candidate capitalizes on this fact by talking about the economy.  (Al Gore did not.)  And when those conditions do not favor a candidate, it matters whether the candidate can successfully change the subject.  And by “matters,” I mean she shows that these strategies shift vote share by a large enough amount to influence the outcome of some presidential elections, even after taking into account the economy.  M.S. suggests that the economy matters because the campaign doesn’t matter.  Vavreck shows the economy matters precisely because it becomes the subject of the campaign.

But more generally, M.S. is making an argument that political scientists have made for a long time.  Presidential elections are the elections where we would expect the campaign to persuade relatively few voters.  People tend to have stronger opinions about presidential candidates than candidates at other levels of office.  And, in the age of public financing, at least until 2008, opposing presidential candidates have had roughly equal amounts of money to spend in the general election. Campaigns matter more when the candidates are unknown and when opposing candidates have asymmetric resources so that one can out-spend or out-campaign the other.  This is why campaign events and spending tend to matter more in presidential primaries and congressional elections than in presidential general elections.

Because people continually overestimate the effect of campaigns, this blog holds up the other end of the dialectic by emphasizing the economy and defending those who do.  But plenty of research has identified the effects of campaigns too—research discussed on this blog, e.g., here, here, here—and so it’s time to abandon this whole it’s-either-the-economy-or-the-campaign dichotomy, which seems implicit in M.S.’s portrayal of my position.

And we can do a lot better than just saying “well, it’s both” or saying “campaigns might matter at the margins.”  We have a much better sense of (1) when campaigns matter, as discussed above, and (2) how much they matter.  To give you an example of “how much”: in counties where Obama aired 1,000 more ads than McCain, he received about 0.5% more of the vote than John Kerry did in those same counties (from this article (pdf) by Michael Franz and Travis Ridout).

If anyone is interested in an accessible overview of recent political science research on campaign effects, see this forthcoming piece by Jake Haselswerdt and me.  Our conclusion is a fitting one for this (overly long) post:

The news cycle demands a constant stream of fresh stories, interpretations, and analysis, and so naturally, during election season, journalists and commentators feature the twist and turns of the campaign itself.  The results may make for more interesting news but they also tend to exaggerate what campaigns can really accomplish.  Moreover, commentators often focus on aspects of the campaign that are particularly trivial and unlikely to affect anything, such as minor misstatements by the candidates.  Instead, it is more accurate to say that campaigns can affect individual voters only when certain conditions are met—a large number of undecided voters, resource disparities among candidates—and then may not sway enough voters in a particular direction to affect the overall outcome.  None of this means that campaigns are inconsequential, particularly in close races.  Moreover, even their occasional impact may have big policy consequences, given the differences between what a Democratic and Republican president, governor or congressional majority will typically do while in office.  But it does mean that the furious efforts of candidates often accomplish less than they would like, and certainly less than pundits perceive.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

John Sides

John Sides is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.