Barack Obama's 2008 victory may have surprised the world, but not UCLA political scientist Lynn Vavreck.
In a new book that makes the astounding claim that there are only two sure routes to winning the U.S. presidency, she argues that the Democratic nominee ran a classic "clarifying" campaign in 2008, with more than 60 percent of his campaign appeals focused on the economic crisis unfolding under a Republican administration.
"Obama talked about the economy more than anything else in his campaign, clarifying his role as the man who would change the course of the economy," said Vavreck, author of "The Message Matters: The Economy and Presidential Campaigns," published this month by Princeton University Press. "For him, the strategy was so successful because the economy was plummeting under the opposing party, and he capitalized on that fact."
Since 1952, nine out of 15 clarifying candidates have nabbed the presidency, making the approach the single most successful route to the White House, Vavreck's research has found.
The only other reliable route to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., she contends, is to run an "insurgent" campaign, staking out another issue and convincing voters that it is not only more important to them than the economy but that the candidate is closer to them on the issue than his or her opponent.
"I'm not saying that either approach is easy for candidates," Vavreck said. "But really, there are only two routes to the White House. The trick is fitting the right approach to the right context."
Vavreck's research shows that 92 percent of the candidates who followed these prescriptions have won presidential campaigns. In contrast, only 14 percent of candidates who violated the prescriptions succeeded.
In the making for more than a decade, Vavreck's theory is based on results from a painstaking analysis of all issues covered in 4,500 pieces of campaign communication from the final six weeks of every presidential campaign for five decades.
Vavreck, an associate professor of political science at UCLA and co-founder of one of the first Internet presidential polling projects, first isolated each appeal made by each candidate and then totaled those appeals to arrive at the topic most frequently discussed by each candidate.
She also closely examined the economic context in which each campaign unfolded. Based on four popular forecasting models and her own analysis of movement in the gross domestic product from the fourth quarter of the calendar year prior to the election to the second quarter of the election year, she determined whether the economy was gaining or losing steam six months before each Election Day.
Only candidates who are predicted to win an election based on a simple economic forecast done in June of the election year can position themselves as the clarifying candidate, be that an incumbent in a good economy or the challenger in a bad economy. But it's not enough to have the economy on a candidate's side, Vavreck found.
"Clarifying candidates have to exploit their advantage," she said. "They have to clarify the link for voters between their party and the good economy or their opponent's party and a bad economy. And they have to talk about the economy more than anything else."
Richard M. Nixon in 1960, Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and Al Gore in 2000 all failed to emphasize the extent to which their party had presided over an economic uptick, and they ended up losing. But the formula paid off one time each for Lyndon Johnson, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton and twice for Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, Vavreck found.
The most vivid example of a clarifying candidate, she contends, is Reagan. In 1980, as the country grappled with a deep recession under Democratic President Jimmy Carter, the Republican nominee's advertising posed a simple question: "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?"
"He was clarifying that his party was not responsible for stagflation and long gas lines — the other party was," Vavreck said. "It was the perfect way to make the connection for voters."
Then, in 1984, after the recession had turned the corner, Reagan again positioned himself as a clarifier, Vavreck says, this time drawing a connection between his party and the good economic times with campaign ads emphasizing "It's morning again in America" and "More people are going to work today than have ever worked before at any point in the history of our country."
"He was on that message all the time, clarifying his role in the economic recovery enjoyed at that point by the country," Vavreck said.
Republican nominee John McCain, on the other hand, ran his 2008 campaign counter to Vavreck's formula for clarifying success, describing over and over how he would address the economic crisis. Eventually, even he seemed to be aware of the difficulty of his position, since his own party had been in the White House at the inception of the financial meltdown.
"If we keep talking about the economic crisis, we're going to lose," the McCain campaign admitted in early October 2008.
The only clarifying candidate who focused on the economy more than anything else and did not emerge victorious during the period studied by Vavreck was Gerald Ford, who in 1976 fell victim to the other potent strategy. In Carter, the Republican incumbent found himself up against a strong "insurgent" candidate, Vavreck contends.
"The challenge for the insurgent candidate is to refocus the election from the economy to another issue, but not just any issue," she said. "The winning insurgent issue has to be something on which the insurgent candidate is closer to most voters than the clarifying candidate and on which the clarifying candidate is committed to his or her unpopular position."
The Georgia governor campaigned as "a trustworthy Washington outsider" at a time of post-Watergate exasperation with the Washington, D.C., political establishment.
"Ford was the consummate Washington insider — a man who pardoned Richard Nixon and who was appointed to the vice presidency and the presidency," Vavreck writes. "He was as inside the Washington Beltway as one could get — and he could not get out."
The best example of an insurgent campaign, according to Vavreck, was John F. Kennedy's 1960 exploitation of his opponent's culpability in what was called the "missile gap" — the alleged fact that America had fallen behind the Soviet Union in weapons development.
"Richard Nixon, whose administration had presided over this 'slump' in American productivity, had no evidence that the gap did not exist and therefore could not counter Kennedy's claim," Vavreck said. "Thus, he was stuck — although the economy was doing well. By choosing his message wisely, Kennedy showed that a candidate predicted to lose based on the state of the economy can affect the outcome."
Of the 15 candidates since 1952 who did not have the economy on their side, only four satisfied both components of a successful insurgent campaign, Vavreck contends, and they all won. Aside from Kennedy in 1960, they were Nixon in 1968, Carter in 1976 and George W. Bush in 2000.
In pursuing the project, Vavreck said she was inspired by two seemingly conflicting situations in American politics: the staggering costs of presidential elections and research that has shown economic forecasting models predict the outcomes of U.S. presidential races with an 80-percent accuracy rate.
"If we can predict the election in advance, then why do we spend a billion dollars in a campaign?" Vavreck said. "That was the puzzle that kept me up at night. I wanted to figure out whether all those things people say in campaigns really add value, and the answer is yes, the message matters, but so does the economic context."
Her task was not easy. Typically, political scientists analyze survey results that measure how voters feel about candidates — not the specific appeals or messages put forth by candidates. In contrast, Vavreck read, dissected and coded 895 political ads, 2,517 stump speeches and 956 newspaper articles, which she then submitted to sophisticated econometric analyses.
"The data just didn't exist in a neatly packaged form," Vavreck said. "I had to collect it and code it myself."
Intense pressures to specialize within the field of political science may have prevented others from ferreting out the relationship.
"In political science," Vavreck said, "We've had people look at advertising. "We've had people look at campaign speeches. We've had people look at fundraising. People look at party identification. But no one has ever taken all of this and woven it together into a general theory of campaigns. That's what I've done here. I've explained why the economic forecasting models so powerfully predict election results while illustrating the powerful role played by political campaigns."
Still, Vavreck doesn't have illusions about shaking up politics.
"The reason the theory has so much explanatory power is because it illustrates how candidates actually behave already," she said. "Most of the candidates are already pretty good at this. They get it. Every now and then, they make bad choices. But I don't think the book will spark a global shift in how candidates think about elections. Still, since half of them lose every time, maybe some candidates would appreciate pointers."
For review copies, contact Jessica Pellien, assistant publicity director for Princeton University Press, at 609-258-7879 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more news, visit the UCLA Newsroom or follow us on Twitter.