As the presidential contest heats up in battleground states that will ultimately decide the November election, President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney are discovering that the great debate over the economy is turning into a debate over a dozen different economies, making it difficult to fashion a consistent political message.
Nevada continues to suffer from double-digit unemployment, struggling to recover from a deep and stubborn housing crisis and from hemorrhaging in the service and construction industries. In Michigan, unemployment hovers in the 8 percent range, a smidge above the national average but a far cry from the 14.1 percent the state experienced during the auto-industry financial crisis that roiled Detroit. Things look a bit cheerier in Iowa, which entered the downturn later than other states, jettisoned fewer jobs, and rebounded much faster.
The Romney campaign recently got a taste of the complexities of trying to tailor one message to such different locales. The former Massachusetts governor’s pitch to voters hinges on the recovery being too sluggish under the president’s policies and the fact that millions of Americans are still feeling economic pain. That message was undercut this week when Florida Gov. Rick Scott insisted on touting economic progress in the Sunshine State under his tenure, for his own political purposes.
Things took a turn for the awkward when Bloomberg News reported on Wednesday that Romney aides had asked Scott to tamp down the cheery chatter and focus on what things would look like under a Romney administration. The request fell on deaf ears. Scott on Friday touted his state's recovery at a major gathering of Hispanic elected officials.
“Our state is doing extremely well,” Scott said. “We still have 800,000 people out of work, but we’re changing it. Tourism is way up, jobs are up, housing prices are staying stable. If you want to buy a house, now is the time. ... We’ve had the biggest drop in unemployment of any state but one in the last seventeen months.”
Other instances of sitting GOP governors heralding their accomplishments on the economic front have also cropped up, putting their messages at loggerheads with the Romney campaign’s central theme. Among them were Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
Kasich in particular had been conspicuously absent from recent Romney campaign events. Notably, he skipped an April event in front of a shuttered factory in Lorain, Ohio. Democrats were quick to pounce, accusing Romney of rooting against the recovery. “Mitt Romney has truly sunk to a new low,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., the Democratic National Committee chairwoman, in a conference call with reporters. “While middle-class families are still fighting to get ahead, Mitt Romney has made it clear he would rather see them fail.”
Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern said in an interview, “That’s the pickle John Kasich is in. He’s given the task of poor-mouthing the economy or going into the witness-protection program, and he’s chosen the latter.”
The president hasn’t had much better luck. Although he readily embraced the idea of regionalized messages as he campaigns across the country, the tactic doesn’t seem to be resonating in the all the places one might think.
Unemployment has been on a downward slide in all of the battleground states identified by National Journal, and while the May jobs report dimmed the overall national outlook, it brought modestly good news for those states, save Colorado which saw a slight uptick of .3 percentage points. Yet, in areas where the economy has improved significantly, particularly in the Rust Belt, support for Obama is at its shakiest, according to a variety of metrics.
In Ohio, where Democrats say that about 45,000 manufacturing jobs have been added in the last 27 months and unemployment is down to 7.3 percent from a recession-high of over 10 percent, the race is tied, with the most recent Quinnipiac University poll showing Obama edging out Romney by a single percentage point.
Polls in Michigan, traditionally a Democratic stronghold, show the race tightening, with Romney closing in on Obama’s once-formidable lead, despite the popularity of the government’s auto bailout in the state.
In Iowa, which boasts the seventh-lowest unemployment rate in the nation, Obama’s approval ratings are underwater and the race is tied. The race is also extremely close in Florida, where unemployment was once 12 percent and is now about 8 percent, but where foreclosures are still rampant.
“Iowans understand that our success in Iowa doesn’t just happen in a vacuum and we need the country to be successful,” said Matt Strawn, former chairman of the Iowa GOP. “Globally and nationally, there is concern. We are doing very well, but we could be doing a lot better.”
Obama’s reelection prospects will turn on whether the Romney campaign can make the latter point stick — and how conditions shake out over the summer.
“The overall picture has improved, too, but is it improving enough?” Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said. “For the calculus geeks, we’re a first-derivative nation. We care more about the direction of change than the level. As long as people can look forward and say things are getting better, I think the president economically is going to be in better shape.”