Jonathan Chait

Obama and the Coming "Choice Election"

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[Guest post by Noam Scheiber:]

Mike Allen reports in his "White House Mindmeld" today that Obama is settling into a "choice election" strategy for November (i.e., trying to make it as much about the other guys as you) rather than a "referendum election" strategy (i.e., making it solely about you):

The President used his remarks in Missouri to frame the November elections as a choice between the economic policies that led us into this mess and the policies that are leading us out – a theme you’ll hear a lot of in the coming four months.

Setting aside the fact that this is almost always the strategy employed by incumbents when times are tough (see "George W. Bush, re-election of") it strikes me as a particularly good approach this time out. All the more so if one of the choices is going to be the previous period of Republican rule, as seems to be the case.

Consider this June NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. The Democrats' numbers certainly aren't great (though maybe not as dire as you'd think: Obama's job approval/disapproval number is at 45-48 , down from 48-45 in May; people have positive feelings toward him personally by a 47-40 margin. And voters prefer GOP to Democratic control of Congress by a 45-43 margin, about the same place it stood in May). But George W. Bush's numbers are absolutely abysmal. The same poll shows that about half as many people have positive feelings toward Bush as negative feelings (29-50). It shows that many more people hold Bush either "solely" or "mainly" responsible for the lousy economy as Obama (40 percent for Bush, 27 percent for Obama).

And then there's this interesting question about factors that would make a voter either enthusiastic/comfortable with a candidate for Congress, or give them pause about that candidate. If the candidate were endorsed by Obama, 36 percent of voters would be enthusiastic or comfortable with this fact, while 43 percent would either have reservations or be uncomfortable. Now compare that with "supported the economic policies of George W. Bush." Twenty-three percent of voters say they'd be enthusiastic or comfortable with a candidate who fit this description, while 62 percent would have reservations or be uncomfortable with such a candidate. If that's not grounds for framing this as a choice election, I don't know what is.

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