The two competing models for understanding presidential elections are the referendum paradigm and the choice paradigm.
In the referendum paradigm, the election comes down mostly to the performance of the incumbent, especially on economic matters. The identity of the opposition candidate matters relatively little: voters are choosing between “the incumbent” and “not the incumbent,” and if things get bad enough, almost anyone else will do.
In the choice paradigm, voters are more prospective than retrospective, making a decision on who will make the best president over the next four years. They may weigh the policy preferences of the candidates fairly heavily, along with their perceived ideological dispositions. And personality can play a role as well: the “who would you rather have a beer with” view of elections comes out of the choice school.
This is, of course, something of a false dichotomy. The economy plays an essential role in presidential elections — but there have also been years when the voters’ verdict went against what the economic scorecard would seem to predict. (Most recently, in 2000, when Al Gore lost to George W. Bush despite Bill Clinton’s strong economic record.) Approval ratings, which occupy a central role in the referendum paradigm since they represent an up-or-down “vote” on the incumbent, correlate very strongly with election outcomes — but so do personal favorability ratings. The party nomination process generally produces competent presidential candidates, but those who hold extremely liberal or extremely conservative views tend to underperform the economic numbers.
A good campaign, therefore, must be prepared to argue its case under both paradigms while at the same time trying to steer the race in the direction that is most favorable to it.
In his speech in Charlotte, N.C. on Thursday night, President Obama was fairly explicit in invoking the choice paradigm. He used the words ‘choice’ or ‘choose’ 21 times in his acceptance address — emphasizing voters’ forward-looking decision rather than what happened during the past four years.
Mitt Romney, by comparison, used ‘choice’ or ‘choose’ just five times during his speech in Tampa, Fla. Instead, he tried to brand himself as a ‘generic’ Republican, taking personality and policy out of the race, while critiquing Mr. Obama’s record. It was right out of Politics 101.
But to the extent that both ways of looking at the election have some grounding in reality, it might be worth asking: which party did a better job at playing its weaker hand?
That is, did Mr. Obama and the Democrats do more to advance their standing under the referendum paradigm? Did they develop their argument for why their record is good enough to deserve re-election?
Or did Mr. Romney and the Republicans do more to help themselves under the choice paradigm? Did they do a good job of explaining why they had better ideas?
From my vantage point, the Democrats did a somewhat better job by this test. Bill Clinton is most of the reason. In his speech on Wednesday, he offered a skillful and detailed (if occasionally long-winded) argument for why Mr. Obama deserved to win on his record. On Thursday, Joseph R. Biden Jr. offered such an argument on behalf of Mr. Obama as well, although it was much more bluntly framed, with a focus on two of Mr. Obama’s more popular accomplishments: the mission he authorized to kill Osama bin Laden, and his approval of the auto bailout.
As for Mr. Obama himself, I thought his speech on Thursday night was not as effective as the ones that Mr. Clinton and Mr. Biden offered, in part because his defense of his accomplishments was much less assertive. But he did describe his foreign policy achievements at some length, if he was extremely circumspect about his domestic record.
Mr. Romney, however, offered exceptionally little detail in terms of policy in his acceptance speech last week. Nor did most of the Republicans’ other prime-time speakers, like Chris Christie and Marco Rubio. Even Paul D. Ryan, who has a reputation for being a policy wonk, spent most of his time attacking Mr. Obama’s record in his speech, rather than advancing his own plans.
To be clear, it was probably the right strategy for Republicans to spend most of their time critiquing Mr. Obama’s record. But they may not have helped themselves very much with voters who do see the election as a choice.
Republicans spent some time trying to remedy Mr. Romney’s mediocre favorability ratings. The strong speech by Ann Romney, and the portions of Mr. Romney’s speech about his family, may have had a humanizing effect.
Even here, however, the intent seemed more to neutralize Mr. Romney’s perceived personal weaknesses — to make him an acceptable alternative under the referendum paradigm — than to offer an affirmative case for why Mr. Romney should be president under the choice paradigm.
If the somewhat disappointing bounce that Mr. Romney received in the polls after Tampa in fact reflected a mediocre convention rather than structural factors, this may have been the reason. Voters weren’t hearing much of the case for Mr. Romney as president, even if they got plenty of the case against Mr. Obama.
But this hypothesis won’t look very wise if Mr. Obama receives a similarly small bounce; we’ll have to wait a few days to see how the polls shake out.
Better Economic News in Advance of Jobs Report
In the meantime, Mr. Obama has been seeing somewhat stronger economic news lately, making his case a bit stronger under the referendum paradigm.
On Thursday, the Dow Jones industrial average was up almost 250 points, closing at its highest point since 2008, on an encouraging report about private-sector employment, and a pledge by European Central Bank’s president, Mario Draghi, to move toward slacker monetary policy.
The FiveThirtyEight economic index, which uses stock market prices as one of its components, was at its highest level of the election cycle on Thursday. This helped Mr. Obama toward his st
rongest chance to date of winning the Electoral College in the forecast, 77.3 percent.
The news over the next week is likely to be much more informative about the ultimate outcome of the election, however, starting with Friday morning’s jobs report. The forecast model has begun to show rather optimistic numbers for Mr. Obama, but that also means the standards will be higher for him to maintain.