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.