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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Defending Against and Proving the Counterfactual

Presidents make mistakes.  It does not matter if one is president of a country, a corporation, or the local branch of the girl scouts---prepare to make at least one bad decision during your tenure.  Because of this bad decision, you will likely face opposition when you run for reelection, either from an outside source or within your own ranks.  What I find interesting is how the incumbent defends him or herself against the counterfactual.  The opposition, no matter what the forum, essentially runs on the platform that he or she would have done a better job as president because he or she would have done X,Y, and Z better.  It is this claim that gives me pause as we gear up for the 2012 election cycle.  

In 2008, it was easy for a virtually unknown Barack Obama to make this claim against an unpopular incumbent because he didn’t have the record.  At times, then-candidate Obama's lack of experience was a political liability, but people were so disillusioned that they were willing to vote for the newcomer.  In 2012, however, it will be much more difficult for the Republican challenger who runs against Obama to make this same claim because he or she will have a record of public service, either as a current or former senator, representative or governor.  But the claim still can be made because many voters feel the same disillusionment that was common in the electorate during the 2008 election cycle.  So the question is how does an incumbent defend against something that is virtually unprovable?  The proposition that, had his opponent been president, the country would be in a better place?  Voters tend to believe the counterfactual, despite the lack of evidence, because they often have buyer’s remorse and regret endorsing the now-incumbent.  Yet this counterfactual is clearly problematic, right?

 I think that the reason we shouldn’t worry about the counterfactual is because, despite the significant disadvantages to the incumbent from this claim, the fact that there is an incumbency advantage erases any disadvantage that emerges from buyer’s remorse.  President Obama’s tenure has been controversial --- from health care to the recent debt negotiations---he has been criticized on both the left and the right.  There seems to be some crisis or controversy almost weekly that turns Republicans, Democrats, and/or Independents against the Administration.  Yet President Obama has been consistently polling ahead of the Republican field and his voter approval rating has stayed in the 40-50 percent range, illustrating that the counterfactual (which is a key argument for any potential opponent) may not be strong enough to sway people to vote against President Obama in 2012. 

So I guess a part of me wonders how this should factor into the Republican strategy.  I don’t think it will be enough for the Republican challengers to parade President Obama’s mistakes and say that they would have done things differently.  Traditionally, that is how elections are won, but we are facing unprecedented polarization in our electorate.  Times have clearly changed.  Unlike 2008 and 2010, neither party can run on a platform of hope and change this time around.  Or even on a platform of fiscal restraint, low taxes, and economic responsibility.  I suspect that the debates of the last two years have forced both parties to change their rhetoric going into the 2012 elections.  We have already gotten some indication of how the Obama Administration is changing their rhetoric going into the 2012 election cycle, and I think the Republican debate tonight will be the first glimpse at what the new messages will be for that party.  Stay tuned.    

Posted by Franita Tolson on August 11, 2011 at 07:17 PM | Permalink


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