Brendan Nyhan | March 17, 2010
Topics: 1982 , 2010 , Barack Obama , midterm , Ronald Reagan
As I've repeatedly noted, journalists have a tendency to attribute electoral outcomes and poll ratings to political tactics rather than the underlying fundamentals (most notably, the state of the economy). That's why the current Obama blame game has been so painfully predictable.
The latest example comes from TNR's John Judis. To his credit, Judis has previously written about the central importance of the economy to presidential approval. Nonetheless, his most recent article suggests that Ronald Reagan's "thematic" communication strategy limited GOP losses in the 1982 elections and should therefore be instructive for the Obama administration:
[A] president's political acumen--his ability to put the best light on his and his party's accomplishments--can mitigate the effects of rising unemployment. That's what Ronald Reagan and the Republicans achieved in the 1982 midterm elections...
Using economic models, some political scientists predicted that Democrats would pick up as many as 50 House seats. The Democrats also hoped to win back the Senate, which they had lost in 1980. But when the votes were tallied, the Republicans lost 26 House seats and kept their 54 seats in the Senate. How did Reagan and the Republicans manage to contain their losses in this midterm election? That's a question not simply of historical interest, but of direct relevance to Obama and the Democrats who are likely to face a similar, although perhaps not as severe, economic situation in November 2010.
Reagan blamed the Democrats for leaving him with "the worst economic mess in half a century"... By cutting spending and taxes, Reagan claimed that he was showing the way toward a recovery...
Reagan stated this theme not once, but hundreds of times and in virtually the same words, and it was featured in national Republican ads....
Obama understood the importance of thematic politics in his presidential campaign, but he and his political advisors have yet to find a way to characterize what he has tried to do as president...
Packer suggests the President needs to convey "a strong worldview" like Ronald Reagan, who supposedly succeeded despite the recession of 1981-1982 and political compromises with Democrats because he conveyed such a worldview: "Reagan could recover from battlefield setbacks because he was fighting a larger war."
In reality, Reagan "could recover" because the economy recovered. His supposedly clearer worldview didn't seem to change media coverage or his approval ratings in 1981-1982 when the economy was at its worst. There's no reason to think that speeches conveying a clearer worldview would have a significant effect on Obama's standing.
To see if this intuition held up, I asked Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University who is forecasting the 2010 election, if there's any evidence to support Judis's claim that the GOP overperformed in 1982 relative to what we would have otherwise expected. Here's what he wrote:
Interesting question. The model predicts a loss of 27 seats and the actual loss was 26 seats. That's using a model with separate dummy variables for first and second midterms. With a single dummy variable, the predicted seat loss is 32 or 33 seats. Still very close to the actual seat loss. But two of the predictors in the model are the generic ballot and net presidential approval in late August or early September, both of which could possibly be influenced by presidential actions. I'd have to go back and check whether either one showed any improvement for the GOP during the spring and summer of 82. My guess is that they did not, though, in which case the Reagan strategy argument would be undermined.
After checking, he reported back:
First, Reagan's approval rating sank during 1982. He started out in the upper 40s and ended up in the low 40s by the time of the election. Not exactly an indication that his strategy was working to help Republicans in the midterm election. You'd want a higher approval rating, not a lower approval rating.
Second, the Democratic lead in the generic ballot was large throughout the year and never diminished. The average lead was 12 points in January, 18 points in April, 20 points in May-July, 18 points in August, and 19 points in the last pre-election poll in late September. So no sign there that Reagan's strategy was working.
Abramowitz also verified that these results were not affected by the inclusion of the 1982 election by excluding it from the data used to forecast the outcome of that election:
The out of sample forecasts are a loss of 33 seats for the model with the simple midterm dummy variable and a loss of 27 seats for the model with separate first and second midterm dummy variables--82 was a first midterm of course, so a slightly smaller seat loss is predicted. Not bad.
Similarly, while Judis cites relatively old forecasts of House seat change in the 1982 election, a more recent model perfectly forecasts the net House seat change for 1982 out of sample (i.e., excluding data from that year).
In short, don't buy the hype. Reagan may have been an effective communicator, but we attribute his success to those skills in large part because the economy rebounded in time to create a landslide in his 1984 campaign against Walter Mondale. There's no convincing evidence that his "thematic" approach improved the GOP's performance in 1982. For the same reasons, while Obama's communications strategy could probably be improved, it's not clear that doing so would significantly change the outcome in November.
Update 3/19 10:00 AM: I passed on a commenter's request for comparable Senate projections for 1982 to Abramowitz. Here's what he wrote:
The models (they're identical to the House models) predict Republican losses of 2 or 3 seats. The actual result was a loss of 1 (or 0 if you factor in pickup of Byrd's seat in VA). The key here is that Republicans were only defending 13 seats vs. 19 Dem seats in 82.
In other words, the Senate results, like those in the House, can largely be explained by the political fundamentals. There's no evidence that Reagan's message caused Republicans to perform unusually well in 1982.