To win, say “growth.” That’s the takeaway from a survey of past presidential debates.
In election years when economic troubles are the main issue, the advisers of candidates tend to settle on one of two themes: “jobs” or “growth.” Then they instruct their candidate to hammer home the ideas that the terms evoke.
A quick survey of past election debates suggests that some terms work better than others when it comes to wooing voters. “Grow” or “growth,” when uttered in reference to the economy, may help win elections; “job” or “jobs” doesn’t work as well.
Consider the 1992 campaign, when Bill Clinton of Arkansas and Ross Perot of Texas challenged incumbent President George H.W. Bush. When the debates’ preparation began, in September 1992, the most recent reported jobless rate was 7.6 percent.
“Creating jobs is the No. 1 issue,” President Bush said, and over Labor Day weekend Clinton told television viewers that a jobs program was “the No. 1 thing” he would do as president.
In the 1992 debates themselves, the word “job” or “jobs” was used more than 100 times by candidates in relation to the economy. Clinton used the term the most. He was also big on “growth.” During the debates, Clinton used that word or “growing” 37 times, Ross Perot spoke of growth 10 times, and Bush only four.
After the debates, President Bush increased his references to growth, saying on Oct. 27, while campaigning, “We have now had six straight quarters of growth in the United States.” It was Clinton’s debate record, however, that stuck in people’s minds.
When the economy seems strong, talk of both growth and jobs naturally subsides. In 2000, a year shaped by the Nasdaq high in early March, neither George W. Bush (who founded the research institute that employs us) nor his opponent, Vice President Al Gore, spoke much of growth: Gore said “grow” or “growth” three times, and Bush twice.
Although the economy was expanding strongly in 2004, the bankruptcy of Enron Corp. and troubles at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were raising concern about the U.S. economic future. That year, Bush spoke of growth more frequently than his Democratic opponent, John Kerry, who spoke more of jobs than Bush did.
In 2008, a campaign that took place during a financial crisis, Barack Obama said “grow” or “growth” four times in the debates, while his Republican opponent, Senator John McCain, spoke of growth or growing by name zero times, according to the transcript provided by the Commission on Presidential Debates. McCain opted to pound on the jobs question, saying “job” or “jobs” 26 times, compared with Obama’s 14 mentions.
These outcomes aren’t intuitive. Jobs, by their definition, tend to benefit specific individuals, and therefore should draw those specific votes. The effect of growth, however, like that of another abstraction, “free trade,” is more diffuse and therefore less dramatic. Few people get up in the morning and say, “I feel better because on average the country had some growth.”
The best explanation for the popularity of the idea is that people aspire to growth. When people see other people enjoying its effects, they have faith that it will benefit themselves, too. The politician who understood this best was Ronald Reagan. Reagan, our quick debate review suggests, didn’t use the words “grow” or “growth” as frequently as either of his Democratic debate opponents, President Jimmy Carter in 1980 or Senator Walter Mondale in 1984. Mondale mentioned growth 12 times in their first debate, in Louisville, Kentucky. Reagan used the word three times.
Perhaps those 1984 omissions came because Reagan had already made growth his hallmark, as in a 1981 speech to the International Monetary Fund in which the president mentioned growth or growing more than 10 times. He had argued that growth would obviate other problems, so assiduously that his approach drew an explicit attack by Mondale that first debate night.
Of the deficit, Mondale said, “President Reagan takes the position it will disappear by magic. It was once called voodoo economics. I wish the president would say: ‘Yes, the CBO is right. Yes we have a $263 billion deficit. This is how I’m going to get it done.’ Don’t talk about growth, because even though we need growth, that’s not helping.” Yet Reagan’s general “Morning in America” theme helped him to victory in the end.
Readers might conduct their own analysis. All we can note is that of the 25 mentions of growing or growth relating to the economy in last week’s first presidential debate, Governor Mitt Romney had 14, and Obama, 11. That means Vice President Joe Biden must say “growth” at least three extra times to catch the Democrats up to the Republicans. This wouldn’t be out of character -- Biden referred to growth more than his opponent, Sarah Palin, did in the vice presidential debate in 2008.
Long ago, in Clinton’s time, James Carville wrote his line about what motivated voters: “The economy, stupid.” The record suggests we might amend the line: “The economy, stupid. That means growth.”
(Amity Shlaes, a Bloomberg View columnist, is the director of the Four Percent Growth Project at the Bush Institute and the author of the forthcoming “Coolidge.” Matthew Denhart is a research assistant at the Bush Institute. The opinions expressed are their own.)
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