Political Pulse October 2006

Not a Pocketbook Election

Pocketbook elections occur when most people think the economy is either very bad or very good. This year, people are evenly divided about whether the economy is in good shape or not.
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Many Americans feel like the man who is about to drown crossing a stream that, on average, is 3 feet deep.

On average, the economy is doing well. The stock market has closed above 12,000. Gasoline prices have been dropping at an astonishing rate. In his opening statement at his October 11 news conference, President Bush said, "The budget numbers are proof that pro-growth economic policies work.... We're creating jobs, reducing the deficit, and making this nation prosperous for all our citizens."

Maybe not for people who feel themselves slipping under water. Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, a Democrat, said on October 13, "The people who are really doing well in this country now are the very wealthy people, and not the working middle class. They're slipping." Take the stock market. A poll conducted this month by Opinion Research for CNN asked Americans, "When the stock market goes up, does that help your personal financial situation?" Most Americans with family incomes greater than $50,000 a year said yes. Most with incomes below that level said no.

This is an election in which the main issue is not "the economy, stupid." That's because Americans are almost evenly divided on the economy. For more than 30 years, polls have regularly asked, "How well are things going in the country today?"The results in the latest CNN poll: 49 percent say very well or fairly well, and 49 percent say pretty badly or very badly. Responses to that question have always reflected the public's view of the national economy.

The answers also reveal which elections are pocketbook elections. Two situations give rise to such contests: bad times and good times. In bad times, fewer than 40 percent said that things were going well in the country when this question was asked in polls done for Time magazine from 1974 through 2004. Examples: In 1974, after the first oil shock and the Watergate scandal, 30 percent said that things were going well; the 1980 "malaise" election (32 percent); the deep recession of 1982 (40 percent); another recession in 1990 (38 percent); and in 1992, when the issue was the stupid economy (35 percent). In all of those bad times, the economy was a major political factor.

Good times are when more than 60 percent say that things are going well. Examples: In 1984, when it was "morning in America," 74 percent viewed things favorably; in 1986 and 1988, during the Reagan recovery (63 percent and 70 percent, respectively); in 1996, 1998, and 2000, the Clinton "boom"—or, to critics, the Clinton "bubble" (67 percent, 78 percent, and 79 percent, respectively). The 78 percent figure for 1998 is particularly revealing. It was the main reason that Democrats made surprising gains in the midterm election that year, even though President Clinton was facing impeachment. If the economy was good, people felt that the president was doing his job.

What about times that are neither clearly bad nor clearly good—that is, when between 40 and 60 percent say that things are going well in the country? We're in such a time now.

In-between economic times do not produce pocketbook elections. Instead, they are dominated by nonpocketbook issues. Examples: the pardon of President Nixon for Watergate in 1976 (56 percent said that things were going well); the tax revolt in 1978 (56 percent); the Republican revolution against Clinton in 1994 (50 percent); and the war on terrorism in 2002 and 2004 (49 percent and 54 percent, respectively).

This year, we're probably headed toward another non-pocketbook election. We're seeing a wave of anti-Washington sentiment, just as we did in the early 1990s. But this time, it's not being driven primarily by economic grievances.

In the CNN poll, 58 percent of Americans said they think most members of Congress are focused on the needs of special interests rather than the needs of their constituents. That's the same percentage as in 1994, the last time that voters overthrew the majority in Congress. About three-quarters of voters see Congress as out of touch with average Americans—just as in 1994.

What's driving current anti-Washington sentiment? Scandals, of course, but also the view that people in Washington are just not doing their jobs. They're not solving problems involving such issues as energy, health care, illegal immigration, Iran, North Korea, and the biggest one of all, Iraq.

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William Schneider is the Cable News Network's senior political analyst. He is also a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times, National Journal, and The Atlantic Monthly. His column appears every week in National Journal, a weekly magazine covering politics and government published in Washington, D.C.

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