What Are Candidates Talking About in the Final Stretch? Not the Economy

The subject most important to voters is absent from congressional candidates' TV ads.

In the last two weeks, House and Senate candidates have run ads about the government shutdownplagiarismLisa Murkowski, the Islamic State, and domestic violence. A Florida congressional candidate even mentioned Howard Dean, who last sought the presidency a decade ago.

But one message has been notably absent: condemnation—or celebration—of the state of the economy.

Congressional candidates this midterm season have avoided using their most important messaging vehicle, television ads, to assess wages, housing prices, or—most of all—middle-class job growth. Except in rare instances, neither party's office-seekers have even tried to articulate their own full-fledged economic agenda.

"As far as 2014 TV ads are concerned, the Obama economy is limping along but there's no alternative GOP agenda," said Elizabeth Wilner, a senior vice president of Kantar Media Ad Intelligence, a group that tracks political advertising.

The absence of such talk from Democrats, who have watched President Obama struggle to revive the economy for six years, isn't surprising. But Republicans have been equally reluctant to engage in a top-to-bottom assessment of the Obama economy. Just two years ago, economic critique was central to GOP ads.

The parties' mutual reticence is, in part, a reflection of an ambivalent economy. As Friday's strong jobs report underscored, the country's accelerating growth has elicited modest optimism among some economists but has yet to assuage the public's deeply held pessimism about their own financial situation.

But, more importantly, it also reveals a glaring weakness for both Republicans and Democrats that will last beyond 2014: Right now, voters don't trust either party as stewards of the economy.

While polling indicates that people blamed the financial crisis on the GOP, they still hold Democrats accountable for the subsequent haphazard recovery. Indeed, the public has shifted back and forth between the parties, trying to determine which can better manage the economy.

In the run-up to the Wall Street collapse, Democrats held a strong plurality of support among Americans: In July 2008, 43 percent of people favored Democrats' handling of the economy, while just 25 percent thought Republicans had a better approach, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. By September 2014, however, Democrats' 18-point edge had turned into a 10-point advantage for Republicans, while 18 percent said neither party is better positioned to deliver prosperity.

Another poll, from Associated Press-GfK, found the GOP held just a 5-point edge among likely voters in 2014, with 22 percent of them saying they trust neither party.

The distrust of both sides leaves most major candidates in 2014 unable to talk with authority about the economy, which voters still rate as the most important issue in the election. And it explains why most campaigns have moved on to other subjects. The lack of economic talk has been most glaring in the closing weeks of most major Senate races, where Republicans and Democrats have focused their messages on abortion rights, contraception access, and ISIS.

In the North Carolina Senate race, for instance, Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan's campaign last week criticized Republican challenger Thom Tillis over education spending. His campaign responded with an ad that attacked Hagan's and Obama's foreign policy, saying the president's "weakness" allowed ISIS to flourish.

It's not that candidates aren't talking about the economy at all. Indeed, jobs and unemployment register as the most discussed subjects on the campaign trail, according to an analysis by Kantar Media Intelligence/CMAG. Some, like Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska, have touted their jobs record in the state.

But most discussions about jobs are confined to smaller-bore items like outsourcing or coal, which while vitally important in some communities don't amount to a full-fledged assessment of the economy. Democrats will argue that they've laid out an economic agenda of their own, including an increase to the minimum wage and legislation to help guarantee fair pay for women. But they're not rejoicing over the country's recent economic gains, either.

In fact, the Democrat who has been most vocal about the recovery isn't on the ballot this year: President Obama. Again Thursday, he credited his stewardship for recent job growth.

"This progress has been hard, but it has been steady, and it has been real," Obama said. "It is a direct result of the American people's drive and determination. It's also the result of sound decisions made by my administration."