The Fundamentals of Presidential Elections

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    • 00:11

      Hi.My name is Lynn Vavreck and I'm a Professorof Political Science and Communications Studies at UCLA.I'm also a contributing columnistto The Upshot at the New York Timesand a fellow at the Andrew F. Carnegie Foundation.And today we're going to talk about campaigns and electionsand how we can figure out who's going to winthe presidential election.

    • 00:32

      There are three things that we'regoing to keep in mind as we go through the conversation,and the first one is that year by year,presidential elections have a tremendous amount of stabilityto them.And that means that we're going to be pretty good at figuringout which of the two major partiesis likely to win the election.We're not always going to be right,but we're going to come close.

    • 00:53

      The second thing is that the thing thatstructures the outcomes of these electionsis the state of the nation's economy.It's not the only thing that matters,but it is probably one of the most important things thatmatters.And we're going to think about why that happensand show that relationship.And then the third thing is that it's notimpossible to beat the economy.

    • 01:15

      And so we want to look at the handful of electionswhere candidates who weren't advantagedby the state of the economy actuallywere able to win those presidential elections.And the takeaway there is that campaign messages can matter,but it's really hard to beat an incumbent party in a growingeconomy.So, as we approach presidential elections,

    • 01:38

      we want to think about all the moneythat the candidates spend.In fact, billions of dollars on advertising,on polling, on consultants.And so candidates and their teamspretty clearly think that what they do in campaignsmakes a difference.But one critical fact is that thereare two candidates and two campaigns,

    • 02:01

      and they're both trying to win really hard.And so instead of thinking about presidential electionslike a boxing match, where each sideis trying to throw the knockout punch,a better way to think of them is like a tug of warwhere each side is pulling really,really hard and probably with equal intensity.

    • 02:21

      And what that means is that it's goingto be very difficult for the flag in the middle of the ropeto move.It doesn't mean the billion dollarsthat they're spending is irrelevant.It actually means it's pretty critical because it keepsthe race in that equilibrium.In the balance.But there are some things that weneed to know about the backdrop of that tug of war.

    • 02:42

      What sets the stage?You can think of the tug of war as the play.And it's a little bit like Shakespeare said,the play's the thing.But the setting is really important.And so that's where we're going to start.We're going to start with the settingof presidential elections, and that means the stateof the nation's economy.So how does the economy structure the outcomes

    • 03:04

      of presidential elections?The best way to see the relationshipis to actually plot the data and take a look at it.So, if you take a look at the change in the GNP or the GDP,you could use real disposable income.

    • 03:25

      You could even use change in unemployment.But what I like to use is GDP.And so if we look at the change in GDPin the first six months of the election year,is that change positive?Is it negative?And we plot that on the x-axis.And then on the y-axis, we plot the incumbent party's shareof the two-party vote.

    • 03:47

      You're going to see a relationship thatlooks pretty much like an upward sloping line.What does that mean?That means, as the nation's economy grows,the incumbent party does better and betterin the presidential election.And the relationship is pretty strong.It's not perfect, but it's robust.

    • 04:08

      So growing economies are good for incumbent partiesin presidential elections.We're talking today about the United States,but as a caveat, that this relationship worksin all sorts of democracies all around the world.So if you can only know one thing,and you had to guess which party was goingto win a presidential election, my money

    • 04:30

      is on the state of the nation's economy.If you chose that as the one thing that you wanted to know,you'd be right 74% of the time since the New Deal.So in modern history.Now, I totally get that a monkey flipping a coinwould be right 50% of the time.There are only two parties.But 75% is better than 50% and I'll take it.

    • 04:54

      You'll do better betting on the state of the nation's economythan you will betting on who the candidates are,and what their characteristics are, and what their traits are.So this is a robust predictor, and the waywe're going to think about it is stage setting.So here's another way that you cansee this relationship at work.

    • 05:16

      This fundamental condition, the state of the nation's economy,produces what we like to call a uniform swingelection to election.And what that means is that we cancut the electorate in as many different groups as we want.Men, women, older people, senior citizens, Democrats,Republicans, independents, different ethnicity groups,

    • 05:37

      different religious groups.Cut it any way you want and plot,for example, Barack Obama's 2008 vote on the horizontal axisand his 2012 vote on the vertical axis.If within each one of these groups,Barack Obama received the same percent of the vote,

    • 05:57

      in 2008 and in 2012 the dots would line upon a 45-degree line.I've got here 2008 2012 plotted and youcan see the dots do make a line, but it'sa line that's a little bit below the 45-degree line.What does that mean?That tells us that he did slightly worse in 2012

    • 06:21

      than he did in 2008 for almost every groupthat we could think of and plot it.Some groups he's doing a little better,and that would be really interesting to talkabout, but something we don't have timeto talk about right now.So group by group, between these two years, Barack Obama--the Democratic Party-- is doing less well in 2012

    • 06:41

      than it did in 2008.And that's a uniform shift.There's something out there that is causingall groups and all kinds of peopleto vote for him a little bit less than they did in 2008.And that could very easily be the stateof the nation's economy.There are other possibilities too,but he's the same candidate running in the same party

    • 07:04

      and the composition of the electoratehasn't changed that much.And so a key possibility is that thereis some sort of fundamental conditionin the nation as a whole that drives people to make decisionsin the same kind of way.

    • 07:25

      How does this work?This relationship between the stateof the nation's economy and outcomesof presidential elections.The main way to think about it is reward and punishment.People are rewarding incumbent partiesfor good economic performance, and they'repunishing parties that perform badly in terms of the economy.

    • 07:47

      So if we think about the 2008 election, for example,Barack Obama is running against John McCain.John McCain, the Republican, is the incumbent party candidate.He's following in the footsteps of George W.Bush, a Republican who held the office in 2000 and 2004.But we have global financial crisis and the economy slowly

    • 08:10

      slumping, slumping, slumping and then quickly fallinginto negative territory.This is bad for the incumbent party.It's bad for the Republicans.And that's what John McCain faces.He is not advantaged by the state of the economy.Barack Obama, his challenger, is advantaged.People are punishing the Republicans

    • 08:31

      for the economic conditions.And then, in 2012, Obama has been elected.He is the incumbent party candidate.The actual incumbent, truth be told,and we have a growing economy.A very, very slowly growing economy, but growingnonetheless, and he is rewarded for that performance.And that's the easiest way to think

    • 08:53

      about how this relationship between the nation'seconomy and presidential outcomes works.So is it the only thing?Well, it's not the only thing.Sometimes candidates manage to steal elections awayfrom candidates who are advantaged by the economy.And so we'll talk a little bit about how that happens.

    • 09:20

      I wrote in this book called The Message Mattersthe story of exactly how candidatesmight be able to win elections where they're notadvantaged by the economy.So if your party benefits from the economy,the story is simple.You talk about that in your campaign, that'syour main message, and you remind people

    • 09:40

      that you should get the credit for bringingabout this economic prosperity.But if your party is disadvantaged by the economy,then you've got some work to do.You've got to change the topic and changethe focus of the election.So how do you do that?You need a winning non-economic message.

    • 10:00

      And in my view, that message has to meetthree very important criteria.The first is that the message hasto be about an issue on which public opinion is lopsided.You don't win an election on a 50/50 issue.If it's 50/50, you're splitting half the voteswith your opponent.

    • 10:20

      So the first thing to consider, if you'rethis candidate who has to beat someone who'sadvantaged by the economy, is whatissue is so lopsided in the electoratethat I might be able to leverage that lopsidednessand make it more important than the economy?But then critically, here's point number two.You have to be closer to most voters on that issue

    • 10:43

      than your opponent is.It doesn't do any good to reset the election off of the economyonto something else if that something else isgoing to benefit your opponent more than it benefits you.So two things.Lopsided, and you're on the right sideof that lopsidedness, and then the third thing is critical.Your opponent has to be stuck in his or her unpopular position.

    • 11:07

      Again, it doesn't do any good to reset the election offof the economy on to this other thing, you benefit from it,but your opponent has never taken a position on it.And so he or she can come along and position themselvesright next to you and split all the votes with you.So all three of these criteria are very important.And the reason this rarely happens

    • 11:28

      is that finding this issue is really hard.So let's talk about three candidates in modern historywho have managed to do this.The first one is John Kennedy in 1960.In this election, Kennedy runs his campaignon the story of the "New Frontier,"and he literally makes the entire presidential election

    • 11:50

      about an all-out war with the Soviet Unionfor the future of the world.Whose nation is going to get to the moon first,is going to explore the oceans first?Whose symphonies will make better music?Whose poets will write better poetry?Whose children will be better at math?All of these things, whether it's education policy, supportfor the arts, or support for science,

    • 12:12

      he takes every single policy that he talks aboutand frames it-- he wraps it-- in this ideathat we are fighting the Soviets for the future of the worldand he calls it the "New Frontier."He is uniquely positioned to talk about hopebecause he's young.He's energetic.And he's running against someone who has been in the White House

    • 12:35

      as Vice President, has been in the administration,for a long time.So his opponent is stuck, if you will, in the past and Kennedyis looking toward the future.In 1968, Richard Nixon does something similarfocusing on the nation's fears about crime and safety.And he's able to leverage what's a very lopsided issue--

    • 12:59

      people's fear for their safety in their communities--to his advantage.And in 1976, Jimmy Carter does the same thingand he runs as a Washington outsider.He's running against Gerald Ford whois just about as inside the Beltway as a candidate can get.He was nominated to the Vice Presidency

    • 13:20

      and then assumed the Presidency, makinghim just a Beltway regular.And Carter sees that and exploits that.People were ready for someone newafter the Watergate scandal, after Vietnam, and thenafter the pardon of Richard Nixon.So if you don't believe me-- I said this was really hard--and I want to talk about one example of someone who tried

    • 13:44

      unsuccessfully to do this.In 1964, Barry Goldwater ran on the ideathat just a little bit of nuclear power was enough.He said, "I want to lob one--" meaning a nuclear bomb,"into the men's room of the Kremlinand make sure that it hits."He said he wanted to disabuse Americans

    • 14:05

      of their fear of the word nuclear.So he managed to reset the election off of the economyand onto this idea of nuclear war,but he wasn't closer to most voterson this lopsided issue than his opponent.In fact, in 1964 most people thoughtthat World War III would happen in their lifetime

    • 14:25

      and that they would die in it.So he refocused the election off of the economy on to warbut helped his opponent in the process.It was something he believed in.In his memoirs, he writes that if he had thought about it--he says, "If I'd had a dime's worth of sense,I would have realized I had lost the election right there."But sometimes candidates, when they're drawing up

    • 14:46

      campaign plans, they do fall back on what they believe in,and what they think is right, and what'sgoing to be best for the future of the nation.And sometimes that strategy falls to the wayside.So, can you beat an incumbent in a growing economy?

    • 15:07

      Yes you can, but it's very, very hard.Campaigns and campaign messages do matter,but the economy sets the stage.Think of it as a tug of war, both sides pulling really hard.All the money they're spending keeps the race in equilibriumand keeps those messages out there,but at the end of the day, one of these candidates

    • 15:28

      has a structural advantage.And you can figure out which one by lookingat the change in growth in the six monthsbefore the election year.So, here are some things that youmight want to think about as you consider the informationthat we've covered today.First, if the economy is such a good predictor of which party

    • 15:50

      will win the presidency, why do candidates campaign at all?In other words, what if you were advantaged by the economyand you just sat at home and did nothing?Would you still win?Second, what criteria define a winning messagefor candidates who don't benefit from the state of the nation'seconomy?Those three things we talked aboutare critical in winning if you're not

    • 16:11

      advantaged by the economy.And then finally, does it matter who the candidates are,or could the parties nominate anyone they wantand end up with the same outcome?And a little tip here, this questionalso draws on those three criteriaof non-winning messages.Because remember, one of the important thingsis the constraint that your opponent faces.

    • 16:33

      So it might not seem like the candidates matter,but if you think about it I bet youcan figure out the way they do.If you're interested in these topicsand want to read more about messaging and presidentialcampaigns, I can recommend to youthe book I wrote from which all this information is drawn.It's called The Message Matters.I also wrote a book on the 2012 electioncalled The Gamble, which will go through how the economy

    • 16:54

      structured the 2012 outcome.And then if you want to read more abouthow regular and stable these outcomes are,and the moments in the campaign leading up to the outcomes,I can recommend to you a book by Chris Wlezienand Bob Erikson called The Timeline of PresidentialCampaigns.

The Fundamentals of Presidential Elections

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Abstract

Professor Lynn Vavreck explains that the state of the national economy is a reliable predictor of whether the incumbent or challenger will win a presidential election. She then highlights exceptions to this rule and demonstrates how challengers overcame their disadvantage.

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The Fundamentals of Presidential Elections

Professor Lynn Vavreck explains that the state of the national economy is a reliable predictor of whether the incumbent or challenger will win a presidential election. She then highlights exceptions to this rule and demonstrates how challengers overcame their disadvantage.

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