The Campaign Fallacy

In his most recent New York Times column, David Brooks falls into a common trap of political reporting, mixing concerns of policy and campaigning. Brooks writes:

Democrats can win elections in this climate if they defuse the Big Government/Small Government ideological debate. With his Third Way approach, Bill Clinton established that he was not a Big Government liberal. Once he crossed that threshold, he could get voters to think about his individual policies, which were actually quite popular.

What wins elections? To answer this question, I start with political scientist Steven Rosenstone’s 1983 book, Forecasting Presidential Elections. There’s been a lot of research on the topic since then, but Rosenstone’s basic findings remain. The #1 thing the incumbent party’s candidate wants is strong economic growth in the year leading up to the election. Beyond this, it helps to be ideologically moderate. So yes, we have every reason to believe that Clinton’s moderation won him votes, but the best thing Clinton did for himself was to preside over steady economic growth.

Now back to Obama, of whom Brooks writes:

Barack Obama also crossed the ideological threshold in 2008, running as a postpartisan unifier. But the government activism of his first two years reawakened the Big Government/Small Government frame. Independents and moderate conservatives recoiled. . . . Obama would be wiser to champion a Grand Bargain strategy. Use the Congressional deficit supercommittee to embrace the sort of new social contract we’ve been circling around for the past few years: simpler taxes, reformed entitlements, more money for human capital, growth and innovation. . . . Take it to the country. Lower the ideological atmosphere and get everybody thinking concretely about the real choices facing the nation.

Here’s where I think Brooks is confused. Start by placing yourself in Barack Obama’s position back in January 2009. Your goal is to have steady economic growth, culminating in a resounding reelection. How do you get this growth. If, like Obama and his economic advisors—-including moderates such as Lawrence Summers—-you believe that depression conditions require economic stimulus, you go for it. No amount of compromise and moderation in 2009 will help you at the ballot box if the economy is flat in 2012. So, if you’re Obama in 2009, your policy goals and electoral goals are aligned.

Brooks writes, “If you don’t trust voters to be serious, they won’t trust you.” But it’s not about seriousness, it’s about results. Let’s flip it around. Suppose Obama wanted to follow Brooks’s advice. How exactly would he get Congress to throw in “more money for human capital, growth and innovation” while embracing simpler taxes [I assume that means “lower taxes”] and reformed entitlements [I assume that means “cutting Social Security and Medicare”]? I don’t see that as an electoral winner.

To get back to Brooks’s main point: yes, I think it would help Obama a bit in the election to be more moderate, but I don’t think it makes so much sense to think of his economic policies in terms of electoral positioning. It’s really more direct: policies have effects, and it makes sense for the president to push for economic growth for its direct effects and for the electoral benefits of a booming economy. Perhaps David Brooks is right that congressional Democrats squandered a historic opportunity to reform the federal government, or perhaps Brooks’s op-ed neighbor Paul Krugman is right that the mistake was a too-small stimulus combined with contraction of state and local budgets.

So I think Brooks is right that Obama will increase his chances for reelection by moving to the center. But it’s not clear that Obama was mistaken in pursuing traditional liberal goals at the start of his term. That depends on what you think about macroeconomics. If you agree with Summers and Krugman, big-government policies were needed to keep the economy out of a depression. If Brooks wants to disagree on the economics, that’s fine, but then that’s a policy question, not a positioning question.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Andrew Gelman

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science and director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University.