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President Obama Delivers Commencement Address at Booker T. Washington High School 5/16/11

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May 16, 2011, 10:36 a.m.

A Rasmussen Re­ports (IVR) poll; con­duc­ted 10/7; sur­veyed 750 LVs; mar­gin of er­ror +/- 3.6% (re­lease, 10/11). Tested: Busi­ness­man Rick Scott (R) and CFO Alex Sink (D).

Gen­er­al Elec­tion Match­up

- Now 9/30 9/22 9/1 R. Scott 50% 46% 50% 47% A. Sink 47 41 44 48 Oth­er 3 5 6 4 Un­dec 0 7 0 1

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.

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