Professor & Author Lynn Vavreck

The professor and author joins us to discuss how the 2016 presidential race has become yet another election dominated by economic issues and whether views of the economy impact voter turnout.

Lynn Vavreck is professor of political science and communication studies at UCLA where she teaches and writes about campaigns, elections, and public opinion. In 2014, she became a contributing columnist to The New York Times data-journalism website called The Upshot. In 2015 she was named an inaugural Andrew F. Carnegie Fellow. She is the author (with John Sides) of The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election, listed as one of the best political books of the year by Slate Magazine, the National Journal,, and The Fix. Vavreck has served on the advisory boards of the British and American National Election Studies and is the co-founder of the Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project. She holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Rochester and has previously worked at Princeton University, Dartmouth College, and The White House.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a conversation with political scientist, Lynn Vavreck, of UCLA about what’s really driving voters this election season. While polls consistently rank the economy as a top concern, the answer may have more to do with political parties than with economics.

And then a conversation with Professor Paul Pierson. The New York Times bestselling author of “Winner-Take-All Politics” is here to talk about his latest, “American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper”.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. Those conversations coming up right now.

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Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Tavis: Many believe that frustration and anger over the economy is the sentiment driving the 2016 election, but it may not be just so simple. The answer may have more to do with political parties than economics.

Lynn Vavreck is the author of “The Message Matters: The Economy and Presidential Campaigns”. She’s the political scientist who writes about campaign elections, as you might expect, and public opinion. Lynn, good to have you on the program.

Lynn Vavreck: Thanks for having me.

Tavis: How important or unimportant is the economy really this time around?

Vavreck: Really? Well, here’s how I think about it. If we think about the post New Deal era, the state of the nation’s economy is sort of the backdrop in front of which this play is going to happen, the presidential campaign. But as Shakespeare said, “The play is the thing.” So it’s the setting, but it matters how candidates engage with it.

Tavis: And how do you grade them on engaging it this time around?

Vavreck: Everybody’s competing for their message, their view of this objective economy, which is really kind of interesting. The economy is what it is, but are we in a time of job losses to China, to technology, or are we in a time of gains?

We’ve recovered from the global financial crisis. Don’t change horses midstream. So really whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican running in 2016, you take a look at the economy and you say, “How am I going to frame the election based on the objective conditions?”

This election is a little tricky because it’s not obvious that we’re going to be at a time of great growth. We’re going to have a second quarter GDP number come out in a couple of weeks, couple of months. That’s really going to be telling. Voters’ memories are a little bit short-term, kind of myopic, so it does matter the change right now.

Even though we’ve recovered since 2009 and since the debt ceiling in ’11, what we’re really talking about is how’s the economy doing in the first six months of this year. So it’s going to be close and I think that’s why they’re just going to fight it out with their view of how things are doing.

Tavis: So now, respectfully, I’m going to fight it out with you.

Vavreck: Okay, let’s do it.

Tavis: Because you said two things that economists always say that drive me up the wall, respectfully. The first thing is this notion of an objective economy. What the heck is an objective economy? It depends on where you find yourself in the economy, so one’s objective view of the economy depends, I think, on where one sits in the economy.

Vavreck: Okay. This is what’s really mind-blowing about the robustness of how the nation’s economy affects the two-party outcome in a presidential election. Now let’s be clear. It is more about when we look at what’s driving what.

It’s more about the state of the nation’s economy, GDP change, for example, than it is about how you personally, Tavis, have done this year or in the first six months or how you think you’re going to do in the next six months.

So your personal–people somehow divorce their personal experience with the economy from some general assessment of how they think things are going nationally. We don’t actually know a lot about why they do that.

There are lots of competing ideas, a rising tide lifts all ships, or they think that it’s reward and punishment for the incumbent party. There are lots of competing explanations, but that’s what we mean when we say–like your experience is different from mine, but we’re both evaluating the nation’s economy when we’re thinking about it.

Tavis: Before I go further with my second point, are you telling me–because I want to hear you correctly. Are you telling me that, when most Americans go to the polls to vote, they’re not voting based upon their personal situation, but they’re based upon how they view the direction of the country?

Vavreck: If we pitted both of those things in a contest, which one is a better driver of vote choice, that’s exactly what I’m saying to you. The overall assessment of the nation’s economic health would do better.

Tavis: That’s fascinating to me. When I go vote, I want to know how my life and how my family, what matters to me, fares. Maybe I should be more egalitarian in my voting process.

Vavreck: Can I blow your mind just a tiny bit more?

Tavis: Please, please. I live for having my mind blown on this program as often as possible. So blow my mind, Lynn.

Vavreck: In fact, if we pitted two other things against each other, your opinion about whether the nation’s economy has gotten better or worse versus–this is what I said earlier–the actual objective number, that growth number, the actual number would do better than an average opinion.

Peoples’ opinions, getting to how you introduced the segment, are clouded up with their partisanship. So sometimes that makes it a little noisier than just the real growth number. It does pretty well.

Tavis: That actually doesn’t blow my mind.

Vavreck: Okay, good [laugh].

Tavis: I take that point. I can see how partisanship could trump that. I get that. But I suspect that what I still don’t get is how people divorce their personal situation, which is to say if you’re unemployed or if you are under-employed or if you’re long-term unemployed, it seems to me that would matter when I go to the polls to vote.

So when I hear an economist on television say the recovery of 2009, the recovery of 2011, if I ain’t recovered, there ain’t no recovery. It’s my favorite economic phrase, “A jobless recovery”. I ain’t figured out what that means yet. If you ain’t got no jobs, you ain’t no recovery. But you guys are always talking about a jobless recovery.

Vavreck: I don’t want to pretend to speak for the economists. But when we think about this politically, and we’ve done some surveys where we asked people just open-ended questions about how they’re finding their own personal finances.

Surprisingly, I guess, people take a lot of responsibility for their own personal financial situation in a way that they understand they personally have no control over the nation’s economy. Now they reward and punish the president for that. He may not have that much control over it either, but they’re attributing reward or blame to him.

Tavis: So then the question which everybody’s wrestling with and trying to figure out–and you’ve said earlier that the numbers between now and election day will, in part, answer this question. But what’s your sense of how Hillary Clinton will be rewarded or damned based upon what has happened on Obama’s watch?

Vavreck: Yeah. I think that we’ll probably have some positive growth numbers. So her best way forward, in my opinion, or whoever the Democratic nominee is, is to talk about the change that we are seeing and that it’s in the right direction and the economy is growing, albeit may be growing slowly, maybe not growing at the same pace for everybody.

But this is a time of gains, and in a time of gains, we know–not economists, but social psychologists tell us that people are risk-averse in times of gains. So if I can anticipate your next question, the Republicans, probably Trump, he’s going to try to tell exactly the opposite story.

We’re in a time of loss. We’ve lost jobs, we’ve lost wages and, as you’re saying, that’s an appealing story for a lot of people. If he can get them in that individual frame, then he puts us in the domain of losses. And those same social psychologists tell us in the time of loss, we are more likely to be risk-accepting, so take a gamble on someone who’s an outsider.

Tavis: Back to Hillary. If she’s the presumptive nominee and you said whoever’s the Democratic nominee, Hillary has already said she will be the nominee. You heard that comment, right? I am the nominee, period. There’s no doubt about that. So she’s already declared that this time around. So let’s take her at her word and assume that she is the presumptive Democratic nominee.

Vavreck: Okay.

Tavis: It seems to me that, if these numbers are just marginally improved or if they take a small drop between now and the election, she’s almost in a position of saying as a response to Donald Trump that it could have been worse. And if Obama hadn’t done X, Y and Z, it could have been worse. To my mind, it could have been worse is not a winning political strategy.

Vavreck: No. That’s bad news. Okay, “It could have been worse” is Mitt Romney campaign in 2012. So, you know, yes, maybe you feel like you’ve recovered, but think of what you were promised and where you are. That’s complicated.

If you think back to the Bill Clinton slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid”, what you’re saying and what Romney was trying to do in 2012, “It’s the counter factual, stupid.” That’s really complicated for people.

So I think, in that scenario, if you’re Hillary Clinton, the story is to try to get people to stretch their memory a little farther back than just the first six months of this year, but to really get people to think about the change over that longer period.

Tavis: Let’s take your scenario. If they stretch their memory back a little farther, they’ll end up in the Reagan era and he asked that famous question, “Are you better off now than you were eight years ago?” If Trump asks that question and does it successfully, what’s the outcome then?

Vavreck: Well, I think Trump doesn’t want to ask that question. So he definitely wants people to think that they’ve lost a lot. If we look at public opinion data now on the economy, the consumer sentiment index, for example, a whole bunch of questions mashed up together, what we see is that peoples’ opinions about how the economy has come back are quite good.

Now there are different levels for people in the different segments of the income distribution, as you were saying, but everybody thinks that we’re about where we were before the global financial crisis. In fact, to go back to Reagan, they think we’re about where we were in 1983 when Ronald Reagan told us, “It’s morning again in America.”

Tavis: And yet, Barack Obama apparently doesn’t read the same data you’re reading because every speech he gives, it’s abundantly clear that he does not think that he’s getting the credit that he deserves for whatever it is that he thinks he’s done.

Vavreck: Okay. So he’s not. And this is also what’s very interesting and unique about this moment in time. So typically, economic indicators and political ratings, whether it’s presidential approval, trust in government, are we on the right track, those things are correlated.

As the economy comes back, those government evaluations go up. All of a sudden, now they’re broken. They’re not correlated, so that’s the mystery. Why do people think the economy is back to where it was before the financial crisis and yet they don’t think the government’s headed in the right direction?

They don’t trust the government. Those indicators are flat or going down and Obama’s approval rating is a little bit lagging, given where the economy has come back to. So he’s not totally wrong about this.

Tavis: So as I hear you…

Vavreck: If I can say that [laugh].

Tavis: I’m out of time. But if I hear you correctly, the moral of the story is whether you’re Trump or Hillary, to succeed, you got to do a little bit of a Jedi mind trick on these numbers.

Vavreck: Well, you definitely have to frame the election. And if you need Jedi powers to do that, then I think you do.

Tavis: I’m glad to have you on.

Vavreck: It’s nice to meet you.

Tavis: Thank you for your insights.

Vavreck: Sure.

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Last modified: May 27, 2016 at 2:48 pm