Two things that drive me most crazy are over-simplifying "the economy" and missing the critical differences between incumbent campaigns and challenger campaigns.
Economics always matters, but the specific economic issues that matter, and the ways voters react have been in flux since the 70s. Voters don't vote on their actual economic welfare. They vote on their opinions about their welfare, which in turn partly means their expectations about the future.
From 1948 until 1980 the two economic issues dominating presidential elections were unemployment and inflation. Now the role of government in the economy, the value of immigration, the role of foreign trade, and the fight over entitlements are all seen as economic issues.
Before the 1980s, creation of jobs was a domestic issue; now, it is always international as well. There are always more people who see the jobs lost through trade than who see the jobs gained from trade. Presidents always need to show they are not letting foreigners take advantage of us.
All of today's fears about China turning us into a nation of hamburger flippers were fears earlier about Japan. The famous trip to Japan in 1991 that ended with President G H W Bush getting sick in the Japanese prime minister's lap was an attempt to show that foreign trade was a two-way street. Bush was trying to get American cars into Japan and Americans laughed at the idea that the country that produced Toyota and Lexus would want a K-car. Johnny Carson's line after the infamous dinner was: "If you had to look at Lee Iacocca while eating raw fish, you'd barf too."
The fight over Obamacare reflects the deep worry of middle-aged employed workers who are trying to hold on until retirement, and whose major concern is making sure that their deserved entitlements, Medicare and SSI, last their lifetime. I think of them as the "not in my lifetime" equivalent of the old "Not in my backyard" opponents of building refineries or nuclear power plants in their area.
The Tea Party is part of a movement that began in over twenty years ago out of disgust with both parties. In 1989, when Ralph Nader encouraged right wing radio hosts to attack a congressional pay raises and the first tea bag uprising began, there was a growing constituency of employed, middle-aged, educated voters whose main concern was the future of social security and Medicare. Until I revisited these campaigns for my book I had not realized that Ross Perot was already becoming a household name cited approvingly in Washington and New York as a font of common sense wisdom.
Incumbents and Challengers
What gets someone to the White House will never keep them there. Every election, reporters will ask me whether the incumbent can do again what he did four years earlier. Explaining why they can't, and why the do-it-again idea is a fallacy, really motivated the book. For instance:
- A challenger's presidential campaign can quickly adjust and adapt to shifting seas like a speedboat. An incumbent's campaign (which is what a successful challenger becomes, four years later) behaves more like a battleship, maneuvering slowly and making very large waves.