Most people recognize that while the recession is over, the stock market has rebounded and the unemployment numbers have come down from their peak in 2010, the recovery is sluggish, the unemployment rate is still too high and there is danger of a new recession if the automatic cuts and tax increase go into effect in January. Republicans have been betting that a struggling economy would be just the thing to defeat Obama and have done all they could to prevent or weaken any efforts by Obama and the Democrats to help get the economy moving again. Will the Republican strategy work?
Robert Grafstein, Associate Dean and Professor of Political Science in the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs, addresses that question in an interesting new article in The Citizen, a publication of the UGA School of Public and International Affairs. Grafstein notes that there is strong evidence that the state of the national economy has an impact on how people vote. That would seem to be good news for Romney and the Republicans. All they have to do is ask voters: Are you better off now than you were in January 2009 when Obama took office? They assume most people will say NO and that they will blame Obama. In other words, Republicans want to make the election a referendum on Obama’s performance in creating jobs. Even if voters think the economy is improving, Republicans believe they can still win on the issue of whether it is improving fast enough. Grafstein notes that political scientists refer to this as the “retrospective model” of economic voting. In deciding whether to give an incumbent president a second term voters judge him based upon his performance during his first term. The retrospective model would suggest that in the absence of a dramatic improvement in the jobs numbers between now and the end of October, Obama has a real problem and Romney and the Republicans have a real advantage. However, says Grafstein, there is a different model for explaining economic voting called “prospective voting.”
The prospective model says people make voting decisions not based upon past performance but upon future expectations. Voters focus not so much on the president’s record during his first term than on what his economic message is for the future, particularly compared to the economic message of his opponent. In this case, voters are looking forward, not back.
Grafstein says he is willing to stick his neck out and bet that this year, “the prospective model is fundamentally right as a matter of political science.” If you look at the polls, Grafstein may be right. The retrospective model would suggest that a challenger going up against an incumbent when unemployment is over 8% should be way ahead. Romney isn’t. Recent polls suggest that while Americans are unhappy with the current status of the economy and Obama’s performance in creating jobs, Romney has not made the case that he has a better strategy. That might make all the difference in this election.