Fantastic study about average voter behavior, from the 2008 Wilson Quarterly (Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs). It adds credence to the idea that BHO may yet play Hoover to Romney’s FDR.
In this piece the author argues that if FDR’s “recession within the depression” in 1937-38 had come a little earlier, he would likely have been a one-term president.
Larry Summers (I think) has similarly argued elsewhere that, but for the looming war, FDR would have lost in 1940 and been remembered for his failed economic policies.
Stephen Moore, in The WSJ Political Diary (email subscription, no link available), argues FDR had to resort to a soak-the-rich strategy in ’36 because (a) he needed the $ and (b) it was his best campaign option since the economy still lagged. Moore further argues that it was, in fact, FDR following through on those promises to soak the rich that triggered the recession within the depression. With apologies (and full credit) to the WSJ I’ll cut&paste the relevant section below the jump.
Here’s an excerpt from Bartels’ piece: From the aforementioned 2008 Wilson Quarterly, Larry M. Bartels in The Irrational Electorate:
While voters are busy meting out myopic, simple-minded rewards and punishments, political observers are often busy exaggerating the policy content of the voters’ verdicts. The prime example in American political history may be the watershed New Deal election of 1936. Having swept into office on a strong tide of economic discontent in 1932, Franklin Roosevelt initiated a series of wide-ranging new policies to cope with the Great Depression. According to the most authoritative political scholar of the era, V. O. Key, “The voters responded with a resounding ratification of the new thrust of governmental policy”—a stunning 46-state landslide that ushered in an era of Democratic electoral dominance.
The 1936 election has become the most celebrated textbook case of ideological realignment in American history. However, a careful look at state-by-state voting patterns suggests that this resounding ratification of Roosevelt’s policies was strongly concentrated in the states that happened to enjoy robust income growth in the months leading up to the vote. Indeed, the apparent impact of short-term economic conditions was so powerful that, if the recession of 1938 had occurred in 1936, Roosevelt probably would have been a one-term president.
It’s not only in the United States that the Depression-era tendency to “throw the bums out” looks like something less than a rational policy judgment. In the United States, voters replaced Republicans with Democrats in 1932 and the economy improved. In Britain and Australia, voters replaced Labor governments with conservatives and the economy improved. In Sweden, voters replaced Conservatives with Liberals, then with Social Democrats, and the economy improved. In the Canadian agricultural province of Saskatchewan, voters replaced Conservatives with Socialists and the economy improved. In the adjacent agricultural province of Alberta, voters replaced a socialist party with a right-leaning party created from scratch by a charismatic radio preacher peddling a flighty share-the-wealth scheme, and the economy improved. In Weimar Germany, where economic distress was deeper and longer lasting, voters rejected all of the mainstream parties, the Nazis seized power, and the economy improved. In every case, the party that happened to be in power when the Depression eased went on to dominate politics for a decade or more thereafter. It seems far-fetched to imagine that all these contradictory shifts represented well-considered ideological conversions. A more parsimonious interpretation is that voters simply—and simple-mindedly—rewarded whoever happened to be in power when things got better.
Stupid? No, just human. And thus—to borrow the title of another current bestseller, by behavioral economist Dan Ariely—-“predictably irrational.” That may be bad enough.
Truman or FDR?
There’s a debate raging in 2011 among political watchers as to whether Barack Obama is campaigning like it’s 1936 or 1948.
In 1936 Franklin Roosevelt won re-election despite a lousy economy by running not on his own four-year record — which featured double-digit unemployment — but by rallying the middle-class and poor against the super rich. It was an us-versus-them message.
Alternatively, Mr. Obama may steal the rhetoric and maneuvers of Harry Truman, who won re-election against Thomas Dewey in 1948 by running against a “do nothing Republican Congress.” It was one of the most successful political turnarounds in American presidential history. Mr. Obama has already shown signs of borrowing from the “give ’em hell, Harry,” theme. He’s railing against Republicans in Congress for not passing a jobs bill and for supposedly putting politics ahead of country.
When Mr. Obama was asked about this, he responded coyly: “If Congress does something, then I can’t run against a do-nothing Congress. If Congress does nothing, then it’s not a matter of me running against them; I think the American people will run them out of town.” Under this scenario, Mr. Obama will try to persuade swing voters that Congress, not the White House, is the source of their frustration and the political failures in Washington.
Merrill Matthews, a scholar at the Institute for Policy Innovation, notes that the historical parallels between what Roosevelt was saying in 1936 and what Obama is saying now are striking. “FDR needed more revenue to support his big-government schemes,” he writes. “He needed a villain to explain why, given the passage of his New Deal legislation, government spending and regulations, the economy was still struggling. So he proposed raising taxes on the rich, which he dubbed a wealth tax.”
Mr. Roosevelt declared in 1935: “Our revenue laws have operated in many ways to the unfair advantage of the few, and they have done little to prevent the unjust concentration of wealth and economic power.” He proposed a 79% tax rate on the rich. Sounds familiar? Mr. Matthews also reminds us that after FDR won that election and raised taxes, the unemployment rate rose to 19% in 1938 from just over 14% in 1936.
My guess is that Team Obama hasn’t decided which of these tactics — blaming Congress or blaming the fat cats on Wall Street — will work best. Maybe the president will try out both messages at once. Even Mr. Obama has acknowledged that this is going to be a different kind of campaign. If “hope and change” is out, don’t be surprised if fear and envy replace them.