It’s Still the Economy, Stupid

More indications that the economy drives political outcomes

One of the side effects of what’s been dubbed the “the permanent campaign” is a proliferation of reporting on public opinion—a steady stream of stories about what people think about government, why they think it, and how those opinions are likely to affect political outcomes. As we edge ever closer to the 2010 midterm elections, that stream is likely to become a torrent.

Here’s something to keep in mind when reading and assessing those stories: to the extent that people’s views about politics or politicians are open to change, one of the factors most likely to change them is the economy. Reporting or analysis that doesn’t prominently acknowledge that fact is off the mark.

Though there’s some debate about whether the process works uniformly across the population, there’s plenty of evidence that the state of the economy is a key factor driving presidential approval ratings and presidential elections. To cite just one example, during the 2004 campaign there was a lot going on politically, not least the Iraq War and an ongoing debate about how the United States should respond to terrorism and other national security threats. But the political scientist Douglas Hibbs found that “the election turned primarily on a real income growth record just favorable enough to keep the Republicans in the White House.” If that explanation doesn’t sound right to you, consider that it fits nicely with a half-century’s worth of evidence showing a steady relationship between income growth and the incumbent party’s share of the presidential vote.

A few recent items provide reason to believe this pattern doesn’t apply only to the president. As Alan Abramowitz wrote recently, Congress’s approval ratings, while generally dismal, move in tandem with the president’s. The phenomenon, he says, “may indicate that evaluations of Congress are influenced by evaluations of the president or that both are influenced by feelings about the condition of the country and the overall performance of the federal government.” And though Abramowitz doesn’t say so explicitly, “feelings about the condition of the country” are substantially dependent on perceptions about the economy.

Moreover, Abramowitz writes that evaluations of Congress bear little relationship to the results of midterm elections (so take those polls about voters’ opinions of Congress with a grain of salt). Instead, “it is the president’s performance that matters when it comes to choosing between a Republican and Democratic candidate for Congress”—and again, assessments of the president’s performance depend in large part on how the economy is doing.

At The Monkey Cage yesterday, John Sides explored the relationship between trust in government and the economy. His charts show a real, secular decline in the public’s trust in government beginning in the 1960s. Over the last few decades, though, the numbers have fluctuated within a consistent range. It’s possible to tie some of the movement to non-economic events—as you’d expect, trust nosedived around the time of Watergate; it spiked post-9/11. But overall, Sides finds, the state of the economy—defined as the growth in real disposable income—explains about three-quarters of the variance in trust. “People trust government when times are good,” he writes. “They don’t trust it when times are bad.”

All this is not to say that the economy is the only thing that matters. For one thing, while the cases cited here measure real economic data, perceptions of the economy—and related issues, like the deficit—are themselves influenced by voters’ political views (i.e., partisanship). And other factors—candidate and campaign quality, legislative success, scandal or lack thereof, random chance—do play a role in shaping election outcomes and other political events. Still, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the economy is one of the very few things that matter most.

The problem, as is often the case for journalists (especially those of the “analyst” or “pundit” sub-species), is that once you acknowledge a few key facts, there’s not that much left to say. Or, rather, that there’s plenty to report on and analyze, but most of it—candidate X’s efforts to tack left or right on a given issue, or the newfound importance of demographic subgroup Y, or a shift in the latest poll on issue Z—is of secondary importance. Meanwhile, the fundamentals don’t change much, and thus don’t create news. That’s why they’re called “the fundamentals.”

There’s no obvious solution here. It’s unrealistic to expect political reporters to stop focusing on the daily churn of a campaign, nor is it clear that they should. Those things do matter, and they are the things that the press is designed to report on. Still, readers should know—and reporters should remind them at every opportunity—that, at bottom, it really is about the economy.

Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.