Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


How to frame the presidential election

Mitt Romney

I can’t quite decide how silly it is to suggest that the presidential election will either be a “referendum” on President Obama’s first term or a “choice” between two competing visions of what the national government should try to do over the next four years.

The smart analysts are writing about this question, but there’s a tendency for them to imply that it has to be one (referendum, which they mostly seem to think is bad for Obama, or choice, which they think could be more troublesome for Mitt Romney).

For the record, when I interviewed Jeff Blodgett, Obama’s Minnesota state director, last week, I asked him the “choice” or “referendum” question and he opted for “choice.”

It seems reasonable to me that it’s bound to have elements of both.

Obama has an actual White House record. It’s possible (even necessary) to argue about which of the things he has done have worked and which not, plus how much of the continuing poor economy can be attributed to his policies and how much is hangover from the free-fall he inherited. And then there are really big things that will eventually be part of his record (Obamacare, for one big example, and the winding down of the two wars) that the public hasn’t seen fully implemented yet.

Romney, whose one term in public office ended six years ago, really doesn’t have much of a record and has shifted away from many of the positions he took as a Massachusetts politician. His experience leading the Olympic games and Bain Capital are something (for both sides) to talk about, but don’t really tell voters much about how he would function as president.

On the other hand, Romney and Obama seem to have settled on roughly opposite positions on almost every public policy issue currently available. And the primary campaign forced Romney to swing further right than he might have liked.

Anyway, the smart set is debating the “referendum” or “choice” frames this week. The conventional wisdom is that Romney does better with a referendum and Obama does better with a choice. Here’s Stu Rothenberg’s version, in which he suggests that while Romney’s political team wants to get back to a referendum frame, the conservative ideologues think they can’t lose with a choice. Rothenberg warns them that they’ve been drinking the righty Kool-Aid. Here’s a chunk of that:

Conservatives invariably call for a ‘choice’ election because they find the Obama vision so appalling that they assume everyone will agree with that assessment. (Ideologues of both the left and the right generally seem to assume that they will be clear winners in the ‘vision’ and ‘values’ debate.)…

In fact, Republicans — and Romney in particular — ought to be very careful about falling into the trap of making the 2012 elections a choice of grand visions.

First, while the most conservative of Republicans can’t seem to think of a thing (other than defense) that government should do, most voters have a decidedly more mixed view of government.

Yes, most voters seem to agree, government spends and taxes too much, is inefficient and interferes too much in private decisions, but those same voters also look to government for student loans, highway spending, Medicare, retirement benefits, clean air and clean water programs and innumerable other federal programs.

Rothenberg notes, of course, that Ronald Reagan framed his 1980 challenge to incumbent Jimmy Carter around the question “are you better off now than you were four years ago?” And I guess you’d have to say it worked. But would it have worked if Carter had sent one more helicopter on that rescue mission and the troops had succeeded in getting the U.S. hostages out of Iran?

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Brian Simon on 04/18/2012 - 11:42 am.


    I happened to catch one of the morning shows today on which they were discussing this exact question, plus the horserace as reflected by the latest poll. My thought was “good god, do we have to endure 200 more days of this nonsense?”

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 04/18/2012 - 11:58 am.

    Why wouldn’t it be also a referendum on Romney?


    “Whether you’re liberal, whether you’re very conservative,” he said, “you ought to be excited [about Romney] because he’s been on your side at one time or another.”–Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX)

    (end quote)

    Romney has a track record in government, business and politicking. All of those tell a lot about who he is, what he has done and what he probably will do. And since he has recently run away from many of his previous positions, his repositioning to the middle for the general election becomes even more indicative of his core beliefs (or lack of).

  3. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 04/18/2012 - 12:42 pm.

    Much depends

    on how SCOTUS rules on Obamacare. And I’m of the belief that Obama and the democrats would benefit the most if they found it unconstitutional.

    If Obamacare is found to be constitutional, that would energize the republican base with the renewed mission to overturn it in congress. That can only happen with a republican majority in both houses and a republican president so their campaign would focus like a laser beam to get out the vote, including the independents who disapprove of Obamacare, which is most of them. For the democrats, finding Obamacare legal may cause some of their voters to relax in the belief their primary objective has been achieved, or at least step one has been hurdled.

    But the reverse dynamic would be true if SCOTUS rules it UNconstutional. It could energize the left and placate the right.

  4. Submitted by Ross Williams on 04/18/2012 - 01:48 pm.

    Media Talking Heads

    This is really a phony distinction. Every re-election of a President is a referendum on the incumbent. If people are satisfied with the direction of the country, the President gets re-elected. Its only when they aren’t satisfied that they need to make a “choice” between the devil they know and the devil they don’t know. I doubt Obama wins the referendum, but he may be able to win based on choice.

  5. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 04/18/2012 - 07:51 pm.

    Once upon a time, candidates campaigned to convince all the voters that they were the best. More recently, they’ve campaigned to sway an increasingly narrow sliver of moderate voters, since most voters have already made up their minds, if not which candidate they prefer, then which candidate is the very embodiment of evil who must be stopped no matter what. Nowadays, however, with so few voters even in a condition to be persuaded, the campaign is more about turnout. Both parties have plenty of voters to win the election, if they can get them to turn out at a slightly higher rate than the enemy party’s voters.

    So, what increases turnout? Fear and anger. Hence, we’ll be faced with a campaign in which Romney and Obama try to convince us that if we don’t turn out and vote (correctly), the enemy candidate will destroy life as we know it. It should be lovely.

Leave a Reply