- Bush 2.0
- McCain 2.2
- Obama 3.3
Our survey is not, by any means, a scientific poll of all economists. We e-mailed a questionnaire to 683 research associates, all we could track down, of the National Bureau of Economic Research, America’s premier association of applied academic economists, though the NBER itself played no role in the survey. A total of 142 responded, of whom 46% identified themselves as Democrats, 10% as Republicans and 44% as neither. This skewed party breakdown may reflect academia’s Democratic tilt, or possibly Democrats’ greater propensity to respond. Still, even if we exclude respondents with a party identification, Mr Obama retains a strong edge—though the McCain campaign should be buoyed by the fact that 530 economists have signed a statement endorsing his plans.
Does their opinion matter? Economics is just one of the many things the next president will have to worry about; voters still seem to prefer Mr McCain on foreign policy. And even on the economy, economists may not have the same priorities as the population at large. Arguably, what a president says about economics on the campaign trail is less important than how he responds to the unexpected challenges that inevitably arise once he is in office.
Yet economists’ opinions should count for something because irrespective of any party affiliation, most of them approach policy decisions with the same basic tool kit. Their assessment of the candidates’ economic credentials and plans represents an informed judgment on how well they will handle difficult trade-offs between efficiency, equity, growth and consensus-building.
Regardless of party affiliation, our respondents generally agree
- the economy is in bad shape,
- that the election is important to the course of economic policy and
- that the housing and financial crisis is the most critical economic issue facing America.
Even among Republicans Mr Obama has the edge: 46% versus 23% say Mr Obama has the better grasp of the subject. “I take McCain’s word on this one,” comments James Harrigan at the University of Virginia, a reference to Mr McCain’s infamous confession that he does not know as much about economics as he should. In fairness, Mr McCain’s lower grade may in part reflect greater candour about his weaknesses. Mr Obama’s more tightly managed image leaves fewer opportunities for such unvarnished introspection.
A candidate’s economic expertise may matter rather less if he surrounds himself with clever advisers. Unfortunately for Mr McCain, 81% of all respondents reckon Mr Obama is more likely to do that; among unaffiliated respondents, 71% say so. That is despite praise across party lines for the excellent Doug Holtz-Eakin, Mr McCain’s most prominent economic adviser and a former head of the Congressional Budget Office. “Although I have tended to vote Republican,” one reply says, “the Democrats have a deep pool of talented, moderate economists.”
There is an apparent contradiction between most economists’ support for free trade, low taxes and less intervention in the market and the low marks many give to Mr McCain, who is generally more supportive of those things than Mr Obama. It probably reflects a perception that the Republican Party under George Bush has subverted many of those ideals for ideology and political gain. Indeed, the majority of respondents rate Mr Bush’s economic record as very bad, and Republican respondents are only slightly less critical.
Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management, says
John McCain has professed disdain for ‘so-called economists’, and for some the feeling has become mutual. Obama’s team is mainstream and non-ideological but extremely talented.On our one-to-five scale, economists on average give Mr Obama’s economic programme a 3.3 and Mr McCain’s a 2.2. Mr Obama, says Jonathan Parker, a non-aligned professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, “is a pragmatist not an ideologue. I expect Clintonian economic policies.” If, that is, crushing federal debt does not derail his taxing and spending plans.
On his plans to fix the financial crisis, Mr Obama averages 3.1, a point higher than Mr McCain. Still, some said they didn’t quite know what they were rating—reasonably enough, since neither candidate has produced clear plans of his own.
Where the candidates’ positions are more clearly articulated, Mr Obama scores better on nearly every issue:
- promoting fiscal discipline,
- energy policy,
- reducing the number of people without health insurance,
- controlling health-care costs,
- reforming financial regulation and boosting long-run economic growth.
Mr McCain gets his highest mark, an average of 3.5 and a clear advantage over Mr Obama, for his position on free trade and globalisation. If Mr Obama “would wake up on free trade”, one respondent says, “I could get behind the plans much more.” Perhaps surprisingly, the economists rated trade low in priority compared with the other issues listed. Only 53% say it is important or very important. Neither candidate scored at all well on dealing with the burgeoning cost of entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security.
The economists also prefer Mr Obama’s tax plans. Republicans and respondents who do not identify with either political party see Mr McCain’s tax policies as more efficient but less equitable. But the former prefer Mr McCain’s plans—43% of Republicans say they are good or very good—and the latter Mr Obama’s. Of non-affiliated respondents, 31% say Mr Obama’s are good or very good.
Either way, according to the economists, it would be difficult to do much worse than George Bush. The respondents give Mr Bush a dismal average of 1.7 on our five-point scale for his economic management. Eighty-two per cent thought Mr Bush’s record was bad or very bad; only 1% thought it was very good.
The Democrats were overwhelmingly negative, but nearly every respondent viewed Mr Bush’s record unfavourably. Half of Republican respondents thought Mr Bush deserves only a 2. “The minimum rating of one severely overestimates the quality of Bush’s economic policies,” says one non-aligned economist.