Political prognosticators and pundits (including Nate Silver at 538) have long suggested that President Obama will be in more trouble the more the economy seems to be faltering. This makes obvious sense. But there is a way in which both a rational voter model and an attentional shift model could militate in the other direction. Voters might reasonably be concerned both about the immediate jobs outlook and the long term health of the economy as they perceive it to be affected by the debt and deficit. If people became complacent about the job situation, they might vote more on the deficit, assuming (albeit contrary to experience) that the Republicans would be more likely to reduce the deficit.
Thus Obama could suffer in the event of a recovery both from voters making rational tradeoffs and voters shifting emphasis between two values they care about. Here’s an extreme analogy — in 1945 immediately after World War II Winston Churchill and his Conservative party were turned out of power despite having just led the country to victory, because voters thought the Labor party better equipped to deal with post-war reconstruction. It would be interesting to look at how Obama is doing in State polls compared to 2008 depending on how the state unemployment rate or change in the state unemployment rate over the last six months.
I’ve long believed that Democrats would do better to emphasize the historical regularity that economic and job growth has been higher in Democratic than Republican administrations. Bill Clinton’s comparison of job growth under Democratic and Republican presidents led many commentators to express surprise, but this relationship should come as no surprise to RBC readers going back to 2008. (See Mark’s RBC post from 2008, or the current Oppenheimer Funds blog addressing the relation between control of the White House and Congress and the stock market). *
Romney’s push to use lackluster economic performance against Obama is handicapped by the fact that voters do not believe Romney has a superior understanding of the needs of the middle class or a better recipe for economic growth than Obama. Even in the ABC News / Washington Post poll released today, whose topline showed Romney closer to Obama than other recent polls, shows Obama favored (in a half-sample result) by 53-38 as better to advance the interests of the middle class, and in the full sample Obama leads by 47-45 on managing the economy. The CNN/ORC poll released Monday has Obama ahead 51-47 on dealing with unemployment, with Romney favored 50-47 in dealing with the deficit. While these numbers are not conclusive–one would rather focus on potential swing voters rather than the whole electorate, what they show after the Democratic convention is an electorate that doubts Romney’s competence on and concern for the issues they care about. At this point for Romney to push on Obama’s economic record seems unlikely to pay much in the way of electoral dividends, even if the economic news does not improve.
According to Crane Brinton’s classic historical analysis of revolutions, regimes fall from within more than from direct attack from outside. The same may be true of Presidencies. Administrations that lose confidence in their ability to deal with the economic challenge are going to lose coherence and appear rudderless and without forward momentum (viz. Jimmy Carter after his cabinet shakeup following the “malaise” speech). This is the picture of Obama that the Republicans tried to paint at their convention, but which seems unlikely to stick, especially after the successful Democratic Convention. Combining a projection of confidence with a clear argument that Democratic Presidents are better for job growth than Republicans (and that all the Republicans have in their tool kit is a return to the failed policies of George W. Bush) seems likely to be a key element of a winning message going forward.
* For those who missed it, what Bill Clinton said was
“Since 1961, for 52 years now, the Republicans have held the White House 28 years, the Democrats 24. … In those 52 years, our private economy has produced 66 million private-sector jobs. So what’s the jobs score? Republicans 24 million, Democrats 42 (million).”