There has been a dubious bit of “conventional wisdom” that has been floating around for the past couple of years. “No President has been re-elected when the unemployment rate has topped 8%” goes the mantra. Well, looking at the elections since World War II, that is true. It is also true that no President has lost a bid for re-election with unemployment above 8%, because, until now, that jobless level has not occurred in any of the contests where an incumbent was seeking to stay in office.
It is always dangerous to attribute statistical truths to Presidential elections, since there are too few to constitute a reliable sample. Remember that no President elected in a year ending in zero between 1840 and 1960 lived out his term–a curse or coincidence? In correlating post-WWII presidential re-elections and unemployment figures, it is important to remember that we are only talking about a sample of nine elections.
In the four cases where unemployment exceeded 7 %, three incumbents were defeated (Ford, Carter and Bush 41) and one was re-elected by a landslide (Reagan). What seems to correlate more than the given level of unemployment is its trajectory. All six presidents who successfully retained office did so when the unemployment rate had dropped from the previous year. Reagan was also re-elected in a year when the unemployment rate was going down. Both Carter and George H. W. Bush were defeated in years when unemployment was on the rise. The outlier was Gerald Ford, who lost in a virtual dead heat with Jimmy Carter, even though the jobless rate was edging down. But Ford had other issues to contend with, as well, including inflation and the Nixon Watergate pardon.
None of this is to say that President Obama doesn’t have a serious problem with the unemployment issue. The Obama Administration ineptly predicted that the unemployment rate would exceed 8% if the stimulus package didn’t pass in 2009. Well, the stimulus passed and the jobless numbers rolled past 8%, anyway. The GOP jumped on this as a failure and it stuck, even though the stimulus legislation helped create and save hundreds of thousands of jobs. As they say, in politics, perception is reality.
The economic climate is certainly the President’s Achilles heel. He took office with overheated expectations and an economy that was in free fall. Progress has been made and a tepid recovery has been underway, but it doesn’t make people feel all warm and fuzzy. Although the Administration has put a lot of jobs programs on the table, these have been routinely been trashed by Congressional Republicans. And when it comes to the economy, President Obama has had trouble with “the vision thing” and has yet to lay out a road map to economic recovery, although that may come in his acceptance speech.
As of now, voters give the edge to Mitt Romney on having the ability to create jobs, based on his business experience. That advantage is undermined, however, by the perception that he favors the rich, games the tax system and doesn’t have a clue about the lives of real people. It is also true that the Romney economic program is full of promises, but is pretty much content free. The Ryan budget and the fact that Romney’s numbers don’t add up in dealing with the deficit also cut into Romney’s credibility as an economic guru. As is the case with his tax returns, Romney is likely to face more criticisms as the specifics of his economic proposals are released.
The economy is the 800 pound gorilla in this election. If Romney were to make a convincing case that he can substantially improve things, he could win. President Obama merely has to fight Romney to a draw on the economy and he can prevail based on “likeability”, demographics and other issues. Right now, the President would seem to have a clear edge in the race for electoral votes, but nothing is for certain.
When it comes to the impact of the economy on the election outcome, it won’t be the quantitative measurements, like the unemployment rate, that matter most. It will be the qualitative reality that matters most–how people feel about the economy–past, present and future.