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)

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."

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