In 1932, American voters threw out the Republicans and the economy improved, so voters rewarded the Democrats. “In Britain and Australia,” writes Princeton’s Larry Bartels, “voters replaced Labor Governments with conservatives and the economy improved. In Sweden, voters replaced Conservatives with Liberals, then with Social Democrats, and the economy improved.”
And so on. Whoever happened to be at the switch when things got a little better got rewarded. Bartels argues that if the recession of 1938 had come two years earlier during the 1936 presidential election — allegedly the most ideologically realigning election of the 20th century — FDR would almost certainly have been a one-termer. Similarly, if energy prices and the economy had improved late in 1980, Jimmy Carter might have been reelected and today be remembered as a very successful president.
And while President Obama is responsible for many bad policies, right now it seems his fate is directly related to the price of gas.
The lesson for 2012, for cynics at least, is not that Republicans should vote for Mitt Romney (or any other Republican) because his policies will create jobs and get the economy moving again — but that when the economy really gets moving again, Americans will ascribe those advances to Republican policies. Likewise, if Obama stays in office for another four years, odds are good — though perhaps not great — that the economy will eventually start to get better and Americans will give him credit for a rebound he in fact delayed more than created.
Now obviously it’s all more complicated than this. Presidents do in fact do things that affect the long-term trajectory of the economy, for good or for ill. And they do other things that are very important too (the idea that we elect presidents to “run” the economy is a very recent notion).
Still, there’s reason to believe that ideological realignments in this country are not necessarily the product of careful analysis and rigorous reasoning. Rather, they are the result of people assigning blame to the guy that just happens to be in charge when the data hits the fan.
It’s not exactly a St. Crispin’s Day speech for partisans on either side, but it is a reason to care who wins, at least a little.
— Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and the author of the forthcoming book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can write to him by e-mail at JonahsColumn@aol.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO.