The new national unemployment rate released this morning held steady at 9.6 percent, marking the final time this economic data point comes out before the November elections. But voters’ perceptions of the economy were likely determined months ago, according to political scientists and economists, and this latest number should have little effect on the outcome of the races. “It’s way too late to change the public’s very pessimistic view of the economy,” says Thomas E. Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Although the midterm congressional elections have dominated news headlines during the past few weeks, Americans remain focused on the state of the economy, according to the latest poll from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Roughly 28 percent of the 1,002 people surveyed paid close attention to economic news, compared to just 12 percent of respondents who said they followed congressional races. And the economy remains the key issue in the fall campaign, according to the latest NEWSWEEK poll.
This new unemployment number re-enforces voters’ dismal view of the economy, Mann says. Roughly 14.8 million people remain unemployed, with jobless rate virtually unchanged for all major demographic groups, and the number of discouraged workers has risen to 1.2 million, up by roughly 500,000 from one year ago, according to the labor department data.
Historically, a weak economy has hurt the political fortunes of incumbent candidates. It’s hard to imagine voters in the state of Nevada, for instance, being as receptive to the advances of GOP Senate nominee Sharron Angle if the unemployment rate were lower than its current 14.4 percent. President George H.W. Bush was tripped up by a bad economy when he reneged on a campaign promise to not raise taxes, and Jimmy Carter’s presidency, which lasted for one term, was similarly hurt by a recession and a spike in oil prices.
The latest unemployment numbers won’t do anything to counteract voters’ impression that President Obama is not doing enough to tackle the economy. Now that the president has been in office for close to two years, the sputtering recovery and lack of economic growth and substantial job creation inevitably hangs on him. “He went for health care over jobs. It turns out the sequencing was wrong,” says Sharyn O’Halloran, a political economist at Columbia University.
The weak economy also has disproportionately hurt the blue-collar workers nicknamed “lunch-pail Democrats,” who can easily swing toward Republicans if they’re dissatisfied. The unemployment rate for men now stands at 9.8 percent; the gap between the unemployment rate for men versus women remains at 9.8 percent versus 8 percent, continuing the trend of this economic downturn being a “mancession.”
The only way Democrats won’t suffer losses in the midterms is if the economy makes a dramatic comeback, and that seems unlikely over the next few weeks. All the party can do now is focus on long-term economic growth—not just the soon-to-expire Bush tax cuts, O’Halloran says, but investments in infrastructure that hopefully can boost productivity and create jobs eventually.