Is Unemployment the Big Issue for Midterm Elections?

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Speculation about the 2010 elections started early, provoked by declining approval ratings for Democrats. Subsequent discussions have touched on factors ranging from disgruntled senior citizens to Representative Charles Rangel (D-NY), while others drew parallels to Republicans' sweeping victories in 1994. But on the issues, no subject looms larger than than unemployment. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat made the argument this week that unemployment will be crucial to Republican strategy in the midterm elections. Surprisingly, the consensus among bloggers on the left and right has shifted. They contend that jobs don't matter as much to voters as politicians--and Douthat--think they do. Who's right? Here are the arguments:

  • Douthat: Unemployment is the Issue of 2010  "If the midterm elections were held today," begins Douthat, "the Democrats would probably take an unemployment-driven beating." Jobs will matter much more than health care, he argues, and while Republicans "remain broadly unpopular" and "aren't exactly overflowing with their own ideas for job creation at the moment," that may not matter: "If unemployment stays high enough ... all they'll have to do is tally up the job market's performance since Barack Obama took office, and then draw a third line, in red, on a certain overly optimistic chart."
  • No Correlation Between Unemployment and Midterm Losses  Political scientist Seth Masket took it upon himself to plot this all out on a scatter plot. "What do we see here?" He asks. "Basically no relationship at all." Even if you graph growth in unemployment specifically in the election year and in the year before the election, it doesn't correlate with higher midterm losses. But "what does seem to matter," he says, "is economic growth." The correlation is loose, but "it's statistically significant." Income growth and presidential popularity actually have measurable effects on midterm results.
  • Agreed--But Dems Still Have Problems  Superblogger Matthew Yglesias points out, reviewing Masket's charts, that the numbers, far from being encouraging, are "mostly a reminder that avoiding midterm losses for the president’s party is just very difficult."
  • Douthat Again: No, Jobs Really Matter  The New York Times columnist isn't giving up. He concurs with Yglesias on the general difficulty of midterms for the party holding the White House. But also, Douthat argues, Masket's numbers show is just how bad unemployment currently is. Past results simply can't be used to predict this election accurately, he suggests:
In the last 50 years, there’s only been one midterm election fought with unemployment above 8 percent, let alone 10.  That would be 1982, when Reagan’s Republicans lost 22 House seats. The sample size of relevant races is way too small to draw any useful generalizations, in other words, and it’s better to fall back on common sense--which tells us, I think, that if you pass a $780 billion stimulus package and then find yourself campaigning two years later amid 10 percent unemployment, you should expect to take a drubbing.
  • I Agree With Yglesias and Masket  The National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru disputes Douthat's 1982 example. "As bad as the high-unemployment 1982 elections were for Republicans," he writes, "we shouldn't forget that it was the first election under the district lines of the 1980s, which were generally more favorable to congressional Democrats than those of the 1970s." In fact, in the Senate elections of that year, he notes, Republicans "did fine."

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