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Why Candidates Win: Tactics vs. Fundamentals

09/07/2011 09:22 am ET | Updated Jun 18, 2012

Today's NYT news analysis by Jeff Zeleny offers a classic example of how journalists attribute political success to tactical strategies. In the course of an article reviewing President Obama's political standing, Zeleny notes that Obama's approval is lower than that of Clinton and Reagan at this point in their terms, which he attributes to their "repositioning" (e.g., move to the center):

The White House can no longer take comfort in comparing the approval ratings for Mr. Obama with Ronald Reagan's or Bill Clinton's in the months after their stinging midterm election defeats. By the time their re-election efforts were intensifying after Labor Day, their respective repositioning had helped elevate their approval above 50 percent.

First, as Mark Blumenthal notes, the comparison to Reagan and Clinton may be overstated. At this point in their terms, the Gallup approval ratings for Reagan and Clinton were 47 percent and 44 percent, respectively, compared with 42 percent for Obama.

Even if we grant that Obama's standing is lower, however, it's not clear that we should attribute Reagan or Clinton's approval ratings to their tactical positioning. The difference is the state of the economy. In the third quarter of 1983, GDP was growing at a rate of 8.1 percent (annual rate, seasonally adjusted). In the third quarter of 1995, GDP growth was 3.4 percent (though it had been slower in the previous two quarters). The most recent figure for Obama shows GDP growth of 1.0 percent in the second quarter of 2011. Zeleny attributes the difference between the candidates to tactics, but it's likely to largely be the result of the difference in economic performance.

I certainly wouldn't claim that ideological positioning doesn't matter on the margin -- it does -- but its influence tends to be greatly overstated. If you doubt this claim, consider where Obama currently stands. He's gone to extraordinary lengths over the last year to present himself as a moderate who is willing to compromise with Republicans, yet his approval ratings are sinking to new lows. Why? The economy is in terrible shape. No amount of repositioning will solve that problem for him. Unfortunately, even reporters as good as Zeleny tend to lose sight of this reality, particularly when it comes to recounting the supposed lessons of previous presidential campaigns.