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August 27, 2014

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POLTICAL MEMO:

Learning from stimulus, it’s better to sell your victories

Dina Titus

Dina Titus

Joe Heck

Joe Heck

Sun Coverage

Rep. Dina Titus doesn’t repeat mistakes too often. During her victorious 2008 campaign in the 3rd Congressional District, unlike her 2006 campaign for governor, she hired professionals and stayed on message.

So it was no surprise to hear her extol the virtues of health care reform passed by Congress last month. Titus was with two women who noted that in the current system, women are more likely to be denied coverage, more likely to be dropped from coverage and are forced to pay far more in premiums than men.

The Titus event, one of hundreds nationwide in the past two weeks, wasn’t surprising because Titus and the Democrats learned from their actions after passage of the stimulus in 2009 — actions which, in retrospect, look like a debacle.

A broad swath of economists, including at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and private firms such as Moody’s and IHS Global Insight, believes the stimulus propped up the economy and fueled the beginning of the expansion. But, as Titus noted this year, Democrats didn’t sell it.

Americans incorrectly conflated the stimulus with bank and auto bailouts, and even though polls show the public approves of the provisions, the same polls show Americans recoil at the mere mention of the word “stimulus.”

So Titus, who faces a tough challenge this year in Dr. Joe Heck, a former state senator, wasn’t about to make the same mistake on health care.

“This time we want to make sure the information gets out there,” she said of the health care legislation, which will prevent insurers from dropping people from coverage or denying them coverage because of pre-existing conditions. In exchange, insurers are being delivered millions of new customers, as individuals will be required to carry policies, many of which will be government-subsidized.

The problem for Titus and the advantage for Heck, however, is that the die may be cast — there may be no amount of salesmanship that will help her.

Why?

Because, as Titus knows from her career as a political scientist, the fundamentals — and most especially what direction the unemployment rate is moving — are what matter.

“Other things being equal, the macro factors are what matter,” said Michael McDonald, a voter behavior expert at George Mason University and the Brookings Institution.

“The best predictors of an election nationally are the state of the economy, economic growth and presidential popularity,” said Dave Damore, a UNLV political scientist.

Just look at recent history: President Ronald Reagan inherited a bad economy, which got worse his first two years or so in office. He lost popularity and his party lost big in 1982. By 1984, things were improving and Reagan won big.

The economy of 1988 was decent, so America elected a caretaker Republican.

In 1992, the economy was bad, so Bill Clinton was elected. He was re-elected as the economy improved in 1996.

Of course, there are exceptions. Al Gore mistakenly believed Beltway conventional wisdom that America had “Clinton fatigue” and broke with Clinton’s record of peace and prosperity, a decision that looks asinine in retrospect. Wars throw a wrench in the hypothesis — as in the elections of 2002 and 2004 — as Americans tend to rally around the president during wartime.

In 2008, true to form, the economy was in free fall, and the party in power lost.

At the local level, Damore added, what matters are the partisan breakdown of the electorate — are there more Democrats or Republicans? — and the quality of candidates.

But even this depends heavily on the economic fundamentals — if the economy is bad, the out-of-power party, in this case Republicans, will attract good candidates, as they have with Heck. If the economy is looking good, the out-of-power party will have trouble finding good challengers because good challengers will anticipate losing.

McDonald said Democrats still have a little daylight: If the economy continues to recover and the employment picture brightens by about June, they can prevent the kind of wave that could wash Titus from office.

The overall lesson to political junkies: Political narratives, media relations, strategy, tactics, ads — they don’t matter much.

Yeah, it’s the economy, stupid.

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