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Why the Economy's Success Hasn't Been a Decisive Factor

November 05, 2000|James Q. Wilson | James Q. Wilson is emeritus professor of management and public policy at UCLA and the author of "Moral Judgment."

The great puzzle about this election is why Al Gore is not at least eight or 10 points ahead of George W. Bush in the polls. Political scientists long ago established that the pocketbook vote belonged to the party in the White House when the country was doing well economically.

In my textbook on American government, there is a chart showing how close the connection is between the vote for the incumbent party and the percentage increase in per-capita disposable income during the election year. President George Bush looked like a shoo-in for reelection in 1992 until the economy stalled, and then even his enviable record as the leader of Desert Storm did not help him defeat Bill Clinton. Bush's son should be facing the same problem. With unparalleled prosperity and vanishingly small rates of unemployment and inflation, Gore should be doing as well as Lyndon B. Johnson did in 1964 or the elder Bush did in 1988. But Gore is, at best, even in the polls and trails in a few.

There are at least three possible explanations. One is that Gore has inherited some part of the hostility toward Clinton and his sexual scandals. That may be true for some voters, but it is hard to see what more Gore could have done to eliminate the link. He is, so far as we know, a loyal husband; he picked as his running mate a senator who took the lead in criticizing Clinton's immorality; and he has not campaigned with Clinton at his side. That the taint argument may not be crucial is evident from the fact that the Bush camp has largely abandoned it.

A second explanation is that the race has evoked deep policy differences among voters. Bush seems to have succeeded in tapping into the moderate-to-conservative tendencies of most American voters. There is a tendency of both candidates to campaign for the centrist voter, and the centrist voter is more conservative than the media would like to admit. Roughly 70% of all voters call themselves moderate or conservative; only 20% describe themselves as liberal. But despite this, Gore has run a campaign designed to appeal to liberals, with frequent attacks on "the rich," "big oil" and "big drug companies." Perhaps this was done to get Gore's liberal constituents to the polls, but if so, the argument may not help him when roughly half of all American families own stock, much of it invested in oil and drug companies. Gore is, in fact, much more liberal than Clinton, and that fact may not set well with swing voters.

A third explanation is that the people this year assign more value to character than to the economy. Voters have told pollsters they think Gore is smart, well-informed and better equipped to help the country cope with education, health care, the environment and Social Security. But voters also tell pollsters they think Bush is more honest and straightforward than Gore and that he beats Gore in leadership, likability and personal standards. And Gore has a lamentable record when it comes to being accurate about his life.

In a TV interview, former Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) put it well: Voters, when they watch presidential debates, look into the eyes of the candidates and judge them as people. When I read the reports from focus groups, I am struck by how often they referred to personality and character more than policy and ideology.

Fine. But why do these views seem to trump the long-standing connection between the economy and the vote? Many of my political science colleagues have released predictions based to an important degree on economic conditions, and all, so far as I know, say that Gore will win. But if that is true, why is Gore not doing better in the polls?

Let me offer a theory, based largely on a hunch. The present prosperity has been going on for so long that voters take it for granted, and so they are inclined to let other things influence their preferences. When Ronald Reagan won in 1980, the economy was in trouble; when he was reelected by a handsome margin in 1984, we had just recovered from a slump that began when he and Federal Reserve Chairman Paul A. Volcker wrung inflation out of the economy by allowing interest rates to shoot skyward. The voters in both cases reacted to short-run changes that were fresh in everyone's minds. The economy turned bad in 1992, and Clinton won, but it was a qualified victory. Ross Perot got 19% of the vote, keeping Clinton well below even half the vote. Perot stood for something more important than the economy: the battle against high levels of public debt and continued budget deficits.

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