It's not a surprising observation, but this is an economy election. The economy is still by far the dominant issue with voters concerned about jobs, finances, and the federal deficit’s impact on economic growth. So why, in the Republican presidential primary, are candidates talking more and more about social and cultural issues like contraception?
I think there are a couple of explanations for it. First, no one Republican candidate seems to have the ability to unite all the various conservative factions—the fiscal conservatives, the global-security conservatives, and the social conservatives. In 2000 and 2004, George W. Bush had the trust and capacity to unite these voters into one successful campaign effort. Mitt Romney, the leading Republican in 2012, seems incapable of bringing all of these elements together. And because there is no unifier, the various elements of the party begin to attack each other, and social issues become part of the conversation. That explains why Romney still has not been able to put this race away despite all the advantages he has had.
Secondly, and more importantly, among Republicans, the economy has cooled as a pressing issue. Six months ago, most Republicans had an incredibly negative and pessimistic view of the economy. They were angry about it, and blamed President Obama. This anger occupied a huge part of the conversation and it enabled candidates to create enthusiasm among potential primary voters. Today, that pessimism has subsided a good deal.
Witness the trend of the Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index, a weekly composite score of how voters view the overall economy and their own finances and buying power, ranging from 100 for most-optimistic to minus 100 for least. The overall index for all Americans still has a negative rating in the high 30s, though it has shown tremendous improvement over the last few months.
But when we look at this score among Republican voters, we find an interesting development. Over the past three months, the Consumer Comfort Index among Republicans has improved 20 points! So while the GOP presidential race has intensified, Republicans have felt less pessimistic about their own finances and the economy overall. In fact, the comfort score for Republican voters is now 13 points better than that of Democrats. That's right, Republicans now feel better than their Democratic counterparts about their economic prospects.
Much of the explanation for this is that the slight improvements in the economy have helped wealthier people disproportionately. The rising tide thus far has lifted only a few boats. Because Republican voters aren’t as angry about the economy, candidates are searching for messages that will touch them emotionally and motivate them—hence the rise of some social and cultural issues in the primary. As the economy improves among these voters, they look for other issues they are angry about. This in part helped Newt Gingrich’s rise a couple of months ago, and Rick Santorum’s rise in the last month. Both began to talk more about cultural issues.
As we look toward November, these circumstances will be important to watch. The cultural and social issues are probably not a winning campaign message for the Republicans in the fall, but part of their base expects to hear about them, which will put likely nominee Romney in a bind. And because Democratic voters are still pessimistic about the economy and their own finances, Obama needs to be careful how he talks about the economy and not be overly optimistic, which would make him seem out of touch with his own base. Yes, this is an economy election, but how the economy improves, and for whom, will complicate the campaigns of both parties.