A Better Referendum For Obama

When someone like Ezra Klein publishes a post with the title, “The poll results that explains the election,” I sit up and take notice. Here’s what he has to say, and it’s very interesting:

Washington has been a bit perplexed by President Obama’s small but persistent lead in the polls. His administration would seem to fail the “Are you better off than you were four years ago” text. And presidents who fail that test lose, right?

But perhaps that’s the wrong question. We focus on the question “Are you better off than you were four years ago” because we assume voters aren’t sophisticated enough to vote based on the right question, which is “are you better off than you would have been if the other party’s candidate had won the presidency four years ago?”

The conventional wisdom: Voters don’t do counterfactuals. “It could have been worse” is a losing message. That’s been the Romney campaign’s theory of the case, certainly, and many in the media have bought it. But perhaps we’re not giving voters enough credit.

The new Allstate/National Journal/Heartland Monitor poll tested this directly. First, they asked the standard “are you better off now than you were four years ago?” A plurality said they were not. Then they asked, “are you better off because Obama won in 2008″? A plurality said they were.

This distinction is important not just because it represents a “referendum” that Obama sort of wins, or at least does not lose. It also shows that the Romney campaign’s strategy of detaching (or at least discouraging from the polls) “disappointed” Obama voters who are suffering from “buyer’s remorse” isn’t working. To put it another way, voters remember more than the “hope” Obama inspired in 2008, or the “change” he promised; they also remember the yawning economic abyss that seemed to open up about this time four years ago, and how completely feckless the 43d president and the Republican nominee to succeed him seemed to be in the face of it all. In other words: they are not as stupid as the Romney campaign seems to believe they are, and can’t be forced to put a hatpin through their frontal lobes and just vote based on the disappointments of a difficult four years, forgetting all else.

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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.