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How To Win Re-Election Even When Everyone Hates Your Handling of the Economy
If Gray Davis could get re-elected, so can Joe Biden
Joe Biden has tried very hard to put a positive spin on his economic policies and the economic outcomes under his leadership, branding the whole enterprise “Bidenomics.” A lot of people (including me) have encouraged him to do this, noting that while inflation has been excessively high during his tenure, many other economic indicators (particularly growth and employment) look quite good, and inflation is moderating, and the US is economically outperforming our peer countries. So maybe he should try bragging about that, we thought, and making the case that the economy is doing pretty well overall, considering.
Is it working? Well, on one hand, the president’s overall poll numbers and his polling on the economy remain significantly underwater, and he has slipped behind Donald Trump in head-to-head polling, so it doesn’t look like the voters are signing off on “Bidenomics.” On the other hand, his poll numbers are better than any other G7 world leader’s, so maybe that means he is getting credit for his relative economic success; if he were presiding over a weaker economy like Rishi Sunak and Olaf Scholz and Justin Trudeau are, he might be down 10 or 20 points like they are instead of 2 points. But in any case, his poll numbers and the level of satisfaction he is achieving about the economy are not quite enough to win him re-election. Something needs to change between now and next November.
Jonathan Chait says “selling Bidenomics is Biden’s only chance to beat Trump”; he argues that incumbent presidents face referendum elections on their economic performance, and the economy is too big an issue for an election strategy built around changing the subject. And certainly I don’t think the president should stop trying to defend his economic record (or stop trying to make the economy better).
But I also keep thinking about Gray Davis, the former California governor who earned voters’ contempt through his oversight of the 2000-2001 electricity crisis, and who was ultimately replaced with Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger in a 2003 recall election. I keep thinking of him because Joe Biden’s image problem reminds me of Davis’ — that is, too many voters see him as simply not up to the job — and because, in between the crisis and the recall, Davis managed to win re-election in 2002.
For those who do not remember this episode: in the summers of 2000 and 2001, California utilities could not generate enough electricity to meet demand. Wholesale electricity prices shot up about 800%, and Californians suffered rolling blackouts, like some sort of third-world country, and the voters were understandably big mad about it. What brought this on was a botched electricity market deregulation, combined with a long period of insufficient construction of electrical plants.
As a political problem, the electricity crisis reminds me a lot of the recent inflation — an annoying and highly salient problem in people’s daily lives, one that appears to reflect a failure of government at one of its basic functions, and one that people remained angry about even after the worst of it was over. After all, in California, electricity reliability in 2002 was way up from 2001 levels, but that did not cause a wave of gratitude toward Gray Davis leading up to the election for fixing the crisis and getting the lights back on. Voters felt, not unreasonably, that the lights should never have gone off in the first place. And a more general economic malaise — there had been a national recession in 2001 that hit California especially hard due to the burst dot-com bubble — didn't help matters.
And yet, Davis won re-election in 2002 by a five-point margin, in a state that was not nearly as reliably blue as it is today.
Davis’s chief strategist from the 2002 campaign, Garry South, told me this week that the campaign’s internal polls had his approval rating at 39% on the eve of re-election. (Public polling was a little better — the Public Policy Institute of California found Davis’ approval at 42% in September and October 2002.) South also described to me the campaign’s extensive (and largely unsuccessful) efforts to turn around public perception of Davis’ handling of the electricity crisis. You could have regarded Gray Davis as the guy who sued Enron over its manipulation of California electricity markets that exacerbated the crisis; who led a boom in power-plant construction that ultimately stopped the blackouts; who cleaned up a mess created through a deregulation law signed by his Republican predecessor, Pete Wilson. The campaign tried messaging like this, in earned media and in television ads, but both focus group participants and voters were unmoved.
So how did Davis win? He ensured that voters hated his opponent even more than they hated him.
The first step — the one with less relevance for Biden this year — was to choose the right opponent. One of the leading Republican candidates for governor in 2002 was Richard Riordan, the former mayor of Los Angeles and a moderate who probably would have defeated Davis in a general election. So Davis spent millions on ads attacking Riordan in the Republican primary. This intervention was likely decisive, ensuring that Riordan would lose and Bill Simon, a conservative businessman with no previous political experience, would be the Republican nominee instead.
The bad news for Biden is that he can’t control who wins the Republican presidential nomination. The good news for Biden is that Republicans are going to nominate an unpopular candidate who offers lots of good avenues for attack in a general election — especially on abortion and on his commitment to American democracy.
The second step in Davis’ strategy was to exploit Simon’s weaknesses with relentless negative attacks, turning what could have been a referendum election on Davis’ competence into a choice election between two unpalatable candidates.1 As South describes it, the attacks had two aims: characterizing Simon as a corrupt and inept businessman; and attacking Simon’s conservative positions on social issues, including abortion, as being out of touch with California voters.
This aspect of the strategy has lots of parallels for 2024.
Democrats have shown over and over since the Dobbs decision that abortion can be a decisive electoral issue for Democrats when voters perceive that abortion rights are at stake in an election. It’s one of the few issues where poll respondents still say they trust Biden more than Trump. And I don’t think the case has really been made yet that abortion is on the 2024 ballot — that abortion rights after Dobbs are not just about state governments and the courts, but would be directly at risk with a Republican president appointing officials to the FDA who would try to take abortion drugs off the market, or to the DOJ who would use an aggressive interpretation of the Comstock Act to prosecute abortion providers. Even in states with strong pro-choice legislative majorities, and even in states where voters have used the referendum process to protect abortion rights from pro-life lawmakers, Trump’s election would be a serious threat to the availability of abortion — even if he is unlikely to obtain new federal laws restricting abortion. It’s an ugly prospect that will repel a lot of swing voters if you get them to think about it.
I do believe we’ll be hearing that message more next year, and I believe it will be effective.
There is also the matter of Trump’s legal issues. My general view has been that the political cost of these is priced in — voters made up their minds long ago about whether Trump is a crook or not, and new information is not persuasive. But I was surprised to see in New York Times surveys earlier this month that 6% of Trump voters said they would switch their support to Biden if Trump were convicted of a crime — a really large number that, if true, would be likely to make the difference on who wins the election. I’m not sure I believe these respondents when they say they would change their votes. But this finding makes me more open to the idea that, in the likely event the January 6 criminal case before Judge Tanya Chutkan reaches a conviction before the election, that will provide useful attack fodder that actually swings votes from Trump to Biden.
More broadly, a bizarre aspect of the news over the last few months is how low Donald Trump’s profile has been. For the last eight years, we have been so used to seeing him block out the sun that it had been difficult for me to imagine the possibility that an election between him and Biden could end up being a referendum on Biden. But the polling we have been seeing recently appears to reflect that: there is a substantial number of voters who have negative views of both candidates but who are treating the election as a choice between Biden and Not Biden, and going with Not Biden. This is an underrated benefit of Trump’s tactical choice to skip the Republican debates: He has not only avoided elevating his primary opponents, he has avoided elevating himself and kept the spotlight on the unpopular incumbent president.
But I am not sure that situation is sustainable. Eventually, when you are a major party nominee for president, voters will start paying a significant amount of attention to you. As shown in another recent Times story based on interviews with survey respondents, neutral prompts that merely cause respondents to think about Trump can dredge up negative thoughts that push them back toward Biden. Even if Trump continues to try to maintain a low profile, I believe the Biden campaign has significant power to recenter him (and the reasons most people dislike him) in the national conversation though negative paid media and through more focused attacks on Trump in earned media, and I believe that can improve Biden’s standing in the polls, even if this will make voters even more depressed and dejected about the upcoming election than they are today.
Ordinarily, I would agree that “it’s the economy, stupid.” And I do not believe the economy can be rendered irrelevant in next year’s election. But the economy is almost good enough for Biden to be ahead in the polls. It will probably continue to improve incrementally over the next year. And Biden faces an opponent with major weaknesses that have not yet been fully exploited through negative campaigning. He should be able to re-run the strategy that worked2 for Gray Davis — getting voters to think all the options suck and he is the least-bad option — and get himself over the top to re-election.
The choices really were unpalatable — a November 2002 poll from the Public Policy Institute of California found that 62% of respondents said they were unsatisfied with the available candidate choices. An October 2002 LA Times poll found 56% of voters were supporting a candidate “mostly because he is the best of a bad lot.” Poll respondents reported less enthusiasm about voting than usual, and turnout indeed ended up being down significantly from 1998. Dan Schnur, now an independent but then a veteran Republican consultant who had worked for Riordan, described the Davis-Simon election as like forcing California voters to choose between Erik and Lyle Menendez.
Of course, Gray Davis was recalled from office less than a year after his 2002 re-election. An effective strategy for beating Bill Simon didn’t fix the underlying problem that Davis was unpopular, and the 2003 recall election had unfortunate (for Davis) features: an up-down vote on whether or not he should be governor, and a race to replace Davis in which the probable victor (Schwarzenegger) was far more palatable than Simon. But Joe Biden doesn’t have to worry about a recall — the election next year is the final election he needs to win.