In 2012, 'Blame Bush' Worked Again

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice leaves after her speech on the third day of the 2012 Republican National Convention. The president she worked for, George W. Bush, did not appear at the convention. (Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Republicans insisted that President Barack Obama couldn’t win a second term by blaming George W. Bush for the lackluster economy.  The 43rd president left office nearly four years ago, and blaming high unemployment and stagnant growth wouldn’t fly with voters in 2012, they argued.

But according to at least one Republican pollster, this strategy worked exceedingly well — thanks in large part to an assist from Mitt Romney and his campaign team. Yes, the Republicans encountered challenges with voter demographics that aren’t going away, acknowledged David Winston in his post-election survey and analysis of the presidential contest. Yes, the Democrats’ voter turnout operation is significantly more advanced than the GOP’s.

What really sank Romney, however, was a tactical decision to frame the campaign as a referendum on Obama and a failure to convince voters that he had a forward-thinking economic vision for the future, and one that was markedly different than that offered by Bush during his eight years in office. Obama might not have offered anything fresh for a second term. But he did convince voters that he had a plan, and he benefited from the fact that his plan was seen as different than Bush’s.

Winston, who regularly advises Republican leaders in the House and Senate, consulted for former Speaker Newt Gingrich during much of his 2012 campaign for the GOP presidential nomination. Among the key findings from Winston’s post-election analysis, which surveyed 1,000 people who said they voted Nov. 6 and includes a review of the exit polling from election night:

  • When asked about their thinking in how they voted in the election, 77 percent of respondents identified with this statement: “President Obama’s record played a very significant role in your decision, but it was also about the choice of directions for the country that Mitt Romney and President Obama offered." Only 22 percent identified with the statement: “Your decision was based only on President Obama’s record.”
Romney magnified this strategic disadvantage during the two weeks of the presidential nominating conventions, when his campaign and its surrogates focused on the question of whether voters were better off than they were four years ago. Although the Obama campaign initially reacted defensively, it ultimately asserted that the answer was “yes.” And in fact, voters agreed. As Winston notes in his analysis that asking this question led to “the only positive contrast that could have been generated for President Obama.”

In his post-election survey, Winston asked voters how they viewed the economy, and 39 percent said it was better but that progress was unacceptable, while 29 percent said it was better and that progress was acceptable; 31 percent said the economy was not getting better. According to the exit polls, voters blamed Bush for the current economic problems, 53 percent to 38 percent — that’s a 15-point margin — and Obama won those voters 85 percent to 12 percent.

And then there’s this nugget:

In Winston’s post-election survey, 61 percent said they believed the statement “cutting taxes will generate economic growth.” Only 31 percent said they believed the statement “increasing government spending will generate economic growth.” Winston asserts in his analysis that voters nonetheless split on whether Obama or Romney would better handle the economy because Romney’s position, while substantively more in line with what voters believe will work best, was perceived as a defense of the policies of the past (i.e., Bush).

“Despite the large opening in 2012, Romney was unable to win the issue of the economy at the scale he needed to,” Winston writes in his analysis. “It was the top issue by a very wide margin across all groups, including women, Hispanics and younger voters. Why this occurred is the central question of this election.”