"It's the economy, stupid."
Thank not former President Bill Clinton but his former adviser James Carville for what was—and still is—one of the greatest catchphrases in modern presidential politics.
The year was 1992, and Carville's candidate was running against incumbent George H. W. Bush. Despite a U.S. economy still suffering the effects of a nasty recession, Bush had entered the campaign season with strong approval ratings, thanks largely to the success of his Desert Storm war against Saddam Hussein the previous year.
Yet Carville was convinced that was old news compared with the recession, which had pushed 77 percent of Americans to say the country was on the "wrong track." Just to remind the candidate—and himself—what was really on voters' minds, Carville scrawled a list on a white board in the war room at Clinton's Little Rock, Ark., campaign headquarters:
1. Change vs. more of the same
2. The economy, stupid
3. Don't forget healthcare
If that doesn't sound a tad familiar, just look at the talking points that have helped propel presidential candidates like Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee in the early rounds of this year's primary season.
Indeed, although the current election doesn't include an incumbent president in the field, the issues in this year's campaign bear an uncanny resemblance to those that framed the election battle Clinton and Bush waged 16 years ago. As then, pocketbook issues related to a recession, or at least the possibility of one, have begun to eclipse concerns about foreign policy, namely the war in Iraq, which as recently as September was the foremost factor weighing on voters' minds. As of last week, voters said the economy is the most important by a 35-to-25-percent margin, according to a CNN/Opinion Research poll.
Meanwhile, with approval ratings for both Congress and the president near historic lows, voters are more receptive than ever to the word change—a fact not lost on the candidates, who summoned the word no fewer than 100 times in back-to-back debates in New Hampshire.
Then, of course, there's healthcare, which in 1992 ranked only after the economy and the deficit as the top concern among voters. "That's about where we are now," says Drew Altman, president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, whose most recent tracking poll found that healthcare is once again a top-three issue this time around. "Of course, the problems in healthcare are worse than they were back then."
For his part, Carville, too, agrees that the issues influencing this year's election and the one that first made him famous are "remarkably alike." Yet he points to one key difference: "an unbelievably sour mood" among voters that he says is far stronger even than in 1992. "I think it's because this could be the first time in history that a president will take office in the middle of both a war and a recession," he says of angst so deep that Americans feel compelled to contribute more than they ever have, and to show up at the polls in record numbers. "That's what's really driving this election."