The “Are You Better Off” Meme Needs To Die

In 1980, Ronald Reagan made a famous statement in a presidential debate inviting voters to make up their minds by sticking a big hatpin through their frontal lobes and assessing whether they were better off than they were when Jimmy Carter became president four years earlier. Ronald Reagan won that election.

To a remarkable number of gabbers, that seems to “prove” that if a majority of voters now conclude they are not better off than they were when Barack Obama became president four years ago, Mitt Romney should win, and it will be deeply weird if he doesn’t.

That is the clear implication of Susan Page’s USAToday story on the latest USAT/Gallup survey, which expresses great puzzlement that Obama’s still ahead in national polls insofar as Americans say they are not better off by a 55/42 margin. True, concedes Page, this is a question that pollsters have only asked “episodically” in the past (which makes you wonder why it’s so incredibly important), but still, didn’t Reagan beat Carter?

I have never understood the apparent belief of so many people that Reagan, in making (albeit with nice simplicity) the case that every challenger makes to every incumbent in all but boom times, somehow magically produced victory, as though voters said to themselves: “Wow, am I better off? Never thought of that one before!” Obviously if voters overall make a negative judgment on an incumbent and a positive judgment on a challenger, the challenger will win. It’s how they make these judgments, and how you balance the “referendum” and “two choices” factors, and how they interact with less discretionary candidate attachments like partisanship and turnout, that are the real questions.

But hey, it’s impossible to poll all that, so we get silly stories like Page’s.

The most basic reality that the endless 1980 analogies don’t address is that a much higher percentage of the electorate than in 1980 will make its choice based not on some judgment about candidates, but on partisan identification. It should not be particularly hard to understand that a significant number of Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents think that they are not better off than they were four years ago, but nonetheless will vote for Barack Obama because (a) they don’t think he’s responsible for the worsening condition of the country, (b) they don’t think Mitt Romney would make things better, or (c) they simply prefer to vote for a Democrat for reasons that have nothing to do with self-assessment or even policy issues.

As for the very small number of swing voters, perhaps they will make a sufficiently negative judgment about the status quo, and a sufficiently positive assessment of the odds the “out” party will make things better, to give, in combination with a relatively strong Republican GOTV effort, Romney the victory. But it won’t be because they have suddenly realized they “aren’t better off” and will mechanically respond to that astonishing revelation by voting for Romney. And that outcome can’t be conjured up by someone–whether it’s Mitt Romney or Susan Page–telling voters it is how they ought to behave because of what happened in 1980 or because the reputations of many political scientists depend on the “referendum theory.”

So let’s bury all the tales from 1980. At this point they add exactly nothing to our understanding of what is likely to happen on November 6.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.