Think the Economy Can Save Democrats? It Won’t

The economy might play a role in presidential politics, but its impact is near nil in the midterms.

Unemployed Americans line up as they wait to gain entry to meet prospective employers a career fair.
National Journal
Alex Roarty
July 13, 2014, 4:25 p.m.

This month’s sur­pris­ingly strong jobs re­port eli­cited fresh op­tim­ism that at long last, the eco­nomy was poised to re­cov­er its full strength. And in Wash­ing­ton, nat­ur­ally, the ques­tion quickly be­came: Would Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates re­ceive an un­ex­pec­ted boost from a late-in-the-elec­tion-cycle eco­nom­ic surge?

The short an­swer? Don’t count on it. Even if job gains do spike — and there’s plenty of re­luct­ance to pre­dict an ac­cel­er­at­ing re­cov­ery after years of stop-and-start growth — it’s un­likely voters will feel demon­strably bet­ter about the eco­nomy in time for Novem­ber. Ul­ti­mately, how voters feel about the eco­nomy and their own fin­an­cial situ­ation is what mat­ters when they step in the polling booth — not ab­stract eco­nom­ic data.

But there’s an­oth­er, more sur­pris­ing reas­on a late-de­vel­op­ing re­cov­ery wouldn’t help Demo­crats. A pleth­ora of polit­ic­al-sci­ence re­search sug­gests the eco­nomy, ex­cept in ex­treme cir­cum­stances, doesn’t mat­ter much in midterm elec­tions any­way. A boost in growth cer­tainly wouldn’t hurt, but its ef­fect on can­did­a­cies would be in­dir­ect and minor.

In oth­er words, to twist James Carville’s fam­ous line, in this midterm elec­tion, it’s not the eco­nomy, stu­pid.

The no­tion that the state of the eco­nomy would re­gister only a small im­pact over­turns one of the most en­trenched be­liefs about polit­ics in Amer­ica — there’s a reas­on, after all, that Carville’s dictum of the 1992 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign is so in­delible. But re­search shows that while the eco­nomy’s im­pact on pres­id­en­tial elec­tions is un­ques­tion­able, there’s much less evid­ence it is de­term­in­at­ive in off-year races.

One study, from Robert Er­ick­son at the Uni­versity of Hou­s­ton, ex­amined 11 House midterm elec­tions from 1946 to 1986. When con­trolling for the party’s per­form­ance in the pre­vi­ous pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, it found no re­la­tion­ship between per cap­ita in­come growth and a party’s per­form­ance. Oth­er stud­ies, like one con­duc­ted in part by then-State Uni­versity of New York (Stony Brook) pro­fess­or Alan Ab­ramow­itz, have ar­gued the eco­nomy af­fects Novem­ber out­comes only in­so­far as it in­forms voters’ views of pres­id­en­tial pop­ular­ity and each party’s com­pet­ence.

It’s why Bill Clin­ton suffered such deep losses in the 1994 midterms des­pite a re­l­at­ively strong eco­nomy or the de­feats of George W. Bush’s party in 2006. A sound eco­nomy is no guar­an­tee of elect­or­al suc­cess.

“Whatever causes the midterm elect­or­ate to tilt to fa­vor the party out of power, it is not voter wrath over the eco­nomy,” Er­ick­son wrote.

Ex­plan­a­tions for its lack of im­pact vary, but many polit­ic­al sci­ent­ists pin­point the be­lief among voters that Con­gress, un­like the pres­id­ent, doesn’t have much in­flu­ence over the eco­nomy. G. Patrick Lynch of the Liberty For­um found in a 2002 study that eco­nom­ic con­di­tions mattered a great deal to House elec­tions in the late 19th and early 20th cen­tury but de­clined in in­flu­ence once the Fed­er­al Re­serve was cre­ated in 1913 — not co­in­cid­ent­ally, the mo­ment Con­gress’s abil­ity to af­fect the eco­nomy de­clined. “Voter re­sponse to the eco­nomy may have shif­ted slowly from Con­gress to the pres­id­ent dur­ing the 20th cen­tury, as con­gres­sion­al power over the eco­nomy changed,” Lynch wrote.

Cer­tainly, not every ex­pert agrees the eco­nomy is near mean­ing­less in midterm races. Most fore­cast mod­els for this year’s battles in­cor­por­ate eco­nom­ic growth in­to their pre­dic­tions, oth­er stud­ies have reached dif­fer­ent con­clu­sions, and there’s re­cent evid­ence to sug­gest it’s not en­tirely right. Clin­ton re­versed his midterm for­tunes four years later, thanks in large part to ro­bust eco­nom­ic growth, and a dis­astrous eco­nomy surely con­trib­uted to Demo­crats’ massive de­feats four years ago.

But 1998 and 2010 were ex­treme ex­amples, mo­ments in which over­whelm­ing prosper­ity (or calam­ity) over­whelmed all oth­er factors that a voter con­siders. That doesn’t hap­pen most years, and it cer­tainly won’t hap­pen in 2014.

“In ex­treme scen­ari­os, you can say [the eco­nomy] was the de­cis­ive thing,” said Gary Jac­ob­son, a polit­ic­al sci­ence pro­fess­or at the Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia (San Diego), who also con­duc­ted re­search on the eco­nomy and midterm elec­tions. “But in non-ex­treme scen­ari­os, it’s not.”

The view­points of polit­ic­al sci­ent­ists and polit­ic­al con­sult­ants who run cam­paigns of­ten col­lide. But in this case, the two groups see eye-to-eye — if for dif­fer­ent reas­ons.

The eco­nomy has not roared back to life since the Great Re­ces­sion, but it has im­proved stead­ily the last four years. That im­prove­ment, however, has yet to trans­late in­to great­er con­fid­ence: Gal­lup’s weekly Eco­nom­ic Con­fid­ence In­dex has been un­changed since Janu­ary and is still neg­at­ive over­all.

To Demo­crat­ic strategists who have stud­ied voters’ at­ti­tudes about the eco­nomy, the lack of con­fid­ence is partly a func­tion of the al­most psych­ic scar­ring left over from the Great Re­ces­sion. But it’s also an in­dic­a­tion, they say, of the be­lief that whatever gains the eco­nomy is mak­ing aren’t be­ne­fit­ing them per­son­ally.

“It’s un­likely that even if you have sus­tained job growth that you’re go­ing to see a big dif­fer­ence in the per­cep­tion of the eco­nomy,” said Jeff Liszt, a poll­ster who, among oth­er races, is work­ing with Sen. Kay Hagan’s reelec­tion cam­paign in North Car­o­lina. “And people may be­lieve it’s get­ting bet­ter, but not in any way that’s help­ing them. Or even to ex­tent it’s help­ing them, they may feel like they’re get­ting crumbs and oth­ers are get­ting the main be­ne­fit.”

Cam­paign­ing on eco­nom­ic growth is also out of the ques­tion. It was no co­in­cid­ence that since the Ju­ly jobs re­port came out, Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates spent much of their time and en­ergy on is­sues like Su­preme Court’s Bur­well v. Hobby Lobby de­cision over in­sur­ance cov­er­age for con­tra­cep­tion while al­most en­tirely ig­nor­ing the pos­it­ive eco­nom­ic news.

“The eco­nomy is get­ting bet­ter and all the eco­nom­ic data says so — the prob­lem is that pub­lic opin­ion isn’t there,” said one Demo­crat­ic poll­ster, who re­ques­ted an­onym­ity to speak can­didly. “And that’s the data point that mat­ters for Novem­ber. There is no way to claim cred­it for something that the voters don’t be­lieve, so it will be very dif­fi­cult to cam­paign on any pos­it­ive eco­nom­ic news.”