Answering Reagan’s Most Famous Question-and How it Lead to Casualties in Iraq and New Orleans!

The disaster of the Bush years will have historians debating the “if onlys” of the 2000 and/or 2004 election results for years to come. No doubt the failure’s in Iraq and after Hurricane Katrina will lead many to ask, “How could this guy have been re-elected?” Fortunately for historians the answer is already apparent in exit polls on Iraq, but even more importantly-on the economy!

Wait a minute Nick. Are you trying to tell me that Bush won re-election because of the economy in 2004?

Well, yes and no. It’s true that voters who picked class-related/economic issues as the most important (e.g. economy/jobs, health care, education) fave Kerry at least 70% of their votes. So those aspects fo exit polls do not bear out a Bush win. Furthermore, while inflation and interest rates remained low from 2000-2004, the stock market was rising again, and unemployment was declining from it’s 2002 high, it is also true that from 2000-2004 the percent of Americans without health insurance and the percent of Americans in poverty rose while real (inflation -adjusted) median household income declined. Sounds like the kind of economic situation the Dems could ride to victory right?

Ordinarily the fact that median incomes were declining would have sealed Bush’s fate. Since World War II when the incumbent party ran to keep hold of the White House in a year when median household income declined, that party lost. The one exception was 1976 when median incomes were starting to rise but unemployment was still high-and Ford’s pardon of Nixon was very unpopular. In 2000, median household income did not rise or fall, but stagnated. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the 2000 election was almost a “tie.”

So what accounted for Bush’s win in 2004 if median household income was declining? Approval of the Iraq war was a big part yes (anywhere from 53%-55% of Americans still approved of the decision to go to war in Iraq, still thought that Iraq was part of the War on Terror, still approved of the overall job Bush was doing, and still liked Bush personally). But another aspect was voters views on their own family’s finanacial situation.

Since 1972 (except in 1988) the NYTimes exit polls have asked Americans to compare their family’s financial situation from the time of the last election to the current one. Voters have a choice of “better today”, “about the same”, or “worse today.” Unsurprisingly, voters who say “better today” tend to favor the incumbent party while those saying “worse today” tend to favor the challenging party. Voters saying “about the same” split relatively evenly-with usually a small advantage for the Democrats. This was true in 2004 as among the 39% of the electorate that said their economic situtation was “the same today” Kerry won 50%-49%.

So it came down to those people who had a definitive better or worse answer to Ronald Reagan’s famous question “Are you better off now that you were four years ago?” Voters who said they were worse off voted for Kerry 79%-20% –more than Reagan won among these voters in 1980 (66%-25%). Indeed, among candidates from both parties since 1972, only Walter Mondale in 1984 won a greater percent of “worse off” voters (85%) than Kerry did in 2004.

In 1984 Reagan recycled his famous question and beat Mondale 86%-14% among voters who said they were better off. Larry Stone, the former mayor of Sunnyvale, California later admitted that when Reagan asked if you were better off than in 1980 he jumped off the couch and yelled at the TV “You bet your a– I am.” From the results of the 1984 election, it appears a lot of Americans had similar sentiments-though as Kevin Phillips pointed out in his 1990 book The Politics of Rich and Poor, it is likely that a majority of votes cast in 1984 came from the top two income quintiles-creating a disproportionate Republican effect on the final vote tallies.

But what of 2004? Among voters who said they were financially better off Bush won by a total of 80%-19%, better than all candidates since 1972 save for Reagan in 1984. But incomes were declining in 2004 right? Well median incomes were falling but here’s the catch: Among the 61% of the electorate who said their family’s financial situation had gotten better or worse 33% of the 61% said their financial situation had gotten better while only 28% said their financial situation had gotten worse.

Who benefited from the Bush years economically? Well, who has the most money in the stock market, gets the biggest windfall from refinancing their homes, is least likely to lose a job, and benefitted the most from the Bush tax cuts? Sounds like upper income voters to me. Given the surge of support for Bush from the people making over $100,000 (54% in 2000 but 58% in 2004, and they made up a higher percent of the vote in 2004 than in 2000) it’s no wonder Bush won in 2004. See the “Morals vs. Class” essay for more.

On the other hand, given the drop in support for Republicans among upper-income voters in 2006 (mostly because of corruption and Iraq) perhaps even the “Reagan question” won’t be enough to save the Reagan coalition from coming apart. As always, yes elections come down to how people feel about the issues-but they are also about which group(s) translate those feelings into actually casted votes!

Coming up next: So What Happens if Iraq is Suddenly Not There in November 2008?

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About Nick

Teacher of Social Studies. Born in the 1970s. History major, music minor. Big Baseball fan. Economic progressive.
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