How Voters View Economic Stagnation
So at this point in the 2012 election cycle, four months from balloting (and less for many voters), it’s an open question how much political impact will come from for the kind of uninspiring but undramatic economic news provided by today’s June Jobs Report. Most voters do not follow this sort of news, at all; they may be entirely unaware of it unless it produces more visible secondary effects like a big, multi-day plunge in the stock market. Yes, Republican gabbers will do everything within their power to draw attention to it, but since it’s a repetition of what they have been saying day in and day out since 2009, it’s unlikely to turn many heads.
Moreover, the kind of slow-to-no growth, stable-but-high unemployment, no-inflation “low plateau” the U.S. economy has reached and could well remain at through Election Day is experienced very differently by different kinds of people. It’s the equivalent of a slow-motion riot for the long-term unemployed, those with underwater mortgages, those entering the job market for the first time, and those hanging onto low-wage marginal jobs by their fingernails. But for a majority of voters, it’s like living in the first circle of hell: you have most of what you need other than hope.
In other words, the basic partisan divisions in a highly polarized electorate are unlikely to change much between now and November. There are no particular signs that either party will enjoy or suffer from a major “enthusiasm gap;” and the small undecided vote will be fought over viciously by campaigns deploying massive paid media resources in a relatively small number of battleground states and media markets. As has been the case since late last year, the incumbent president and his party will do everything within its power to make this a comparative election in which fears and doubts about Republican values and policy preferences matter most. Meanwhile, the GOP will continue to struggle for harmony between a presidential candidate determined to win an “economic referendum on the incumbent” and powerful party forces whose desire for a comparative election on a broad range of issues is even stronger than that of Democrats.
So Democrats shouldn’t despair over the stagnant economic indicators, and Republicans shouldn’t get complacent. Certainly the kind of economic environment of steady growth that looked possible earlier in the year would be have a major boost to Democratic prospects, and would have greatly increased the internal conflict between Republicans counseling a “safe” referendum strategy and those demanding all-out ideological warfare. But the best guess right now is for a maddeningly close contest on both the presidential and congressional fronts in which relatively small and un-newsy things—the value of the Obama campaign’s huge sunk investment in GOTV infrastructure and “voter protection” efforts; the effect of attacks on Mitt Romney’s character and background; the ability of Republicans to keep their restive and noisy “base” under control—may well determine the outcome.
Sure, it’s possible that late economic news, from a downward plunge triggered by global developments to a brief growth spurt enabled by a reluctant Fed, could be a game-changer. And maybe the outcome will vindicate those economists and political scientists who believe Obama’s already lost because—contrary to the evidence of such supposed “outliers” as the 2004 elections—late deciders will be deaf to any negative information about Mitt Romney and will break against the incumbent absent big positive economic developments or a foreign policy crisis. But the odds are high that what we see is what we’ll get, and that’s a nail-biter.