The presidential campaign of 2012 is so negative because America’s economy is so bad. While this may seem a non sequitur, the two not only are closely connected, but mesh with the campaign dynamics prevailing when an incumbent president seeks re-election. Together, these elements make for an accelerating downward spiral as November approaches.
Many purists liken running for president to an extended job interview with the electorate. They see the exercise as a winnowing process but deplore its negativity. But presidential elections are nothing like job interviews. Presidential races really are two-candidate public interviews before a plethora of bosses.
Real job interviews are positive because they are one-sided. Job candidates do not know who else is being interviewed. If they did, you can be sure such interviews would have a negative element, too.
To accurately understand why the economy effectively dictates roles in this campaign, first you must understand the dynamics of a presidential re-election bid.
Most important, elected incumbents rarely lose re-election attempts — just two since Herbert Hoover.
To pull off the upset, challengers must try to present a case for making a change, convincing voters that things aren’t going well or won’t be soon enough. Otherwise, why should voters switch?
America is a very fortunate country, and usually things go well. That’s why voters almost always stick with incumbents. However, when things are not going well objectively, challengers suddenly have a rare opening.
Nothing is more objective or persuasive than the economy — particularly when its performance is poor. That’s why Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush both lost — and why Ronald Reagan (“Are you better off than you were four years ago?”) and Bill Clinton (“It’s the economy, stupid”) focused forcefully on bad economies.
On one side of the electoral equation, challengers have a need to discredit the current administration, and a bad economy is their best means for doing it. On the equation’s other side, the incumbent must make the challenger an unacceptable alternative by elevating the incumbent or reducing the challenger.
The problem for the incumbent saddled with a bad economy — and for the current incumbent in particular — is that it is difficult to make himself look good when the electorate’s most important focal point does not. Such circumstances mean the incumbent, President Obama, effectively has nowhere to go but negative. He must discredit the challenger as a replacement.
Make no mistake: America’s economy is bad — historically so, with the worst recovery since the Great Depression. Unemployment is 8.3 percent. The economy’s most recent quarterly growth was just 1.5 percent and over the past three years has averaged less than 1 percent annually.
The federal cost paid for this bad economy is equally bad. Washington is spending almost a quarter of all America produces, will shortly record its fourth consecutive $1 trillion-plus deficit, and has almost doubled the debt (held by the public) in just four years.
Mr. Obama’s predicament is even worse because the economy is not his only problem. His signature policy achievement, the health care overhaul, is also unpopular. Thus, he has little positive with which to offset the economy. His response to Mitt Romney’s challenge must be all the more negative.
Negativity should not be a surprise under any circumstances in a president’s re-election race. However, during a bad economy, it is impossible to see how a re-election race would not be negative. With the historically bad economy and Mr. Obama’s few positive accomplishments, this dynamic is especially strong. Incumbent and challenger are essentially scripted into their positions.
Bad economies accelerate the inherent negative dynamic existing in American presidential re-election races. The worse the economy, the more negative the race is likely to be. There should be no mystery that the negative is front and center in the Obama-Romney race. The real surprise would be if it did not get worse before Nov. 6.
J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department, the Office of Management and Budget and as a congressional staff member.