Are voters giving up on recovery?

For the past 12 months, I have said President Obama would lose his reelection bid, primarily because of the national discouragement reflected in the well-known and widely used “right direction” or “wrong track” question. Historical data says that candidates for president or governor facing an electorate that is majority-“wrong track” are doomed. But recent polling seems to suggest that Obama might rewrite the rulebook. Americans might be so down and out that they are incapable of pointing us in a new direction. Are they simply giving up? It’s a hypothesis worth exploring. Last month alone, the monthly jobs report said almost 400,000 Americans gave up looking for work. A record 42 percent of the jobless are now experiencing long-term unemployment. Is it any wonder that they are also bailing out of politics?

Let’s review the chronology. For most of Obama’s tenure, solid majorities of Americans have said that the nation is on the wrong track. For most of the past 12 months, 60 percent or more of Americans have taken this pessimistic stance. While it is true that in the past 30 days a few major polls have shown wrong-track sentiment declining to the mid-50s, the most recent public polls still show right-direction sentiment hovering near 40 percent, hardly the foundation for a spirited chant of “Four more years!” If voters really believe what they are telling the pollsters about the direction of their country, why would they turn around and give the guy driving the bus another trip? This seems to defy logic, and it contradicts what history says happens to wrong-track leaders.

What’s going on? For one thing, I don’t believe that wrong-track sentiment means the same things it once meant. For decades it was a barometer of economic health. But since 2004 it has had a more political meaning. If a voter thinks his party or ideology is losing, he responds “wrong track” when asked the question. If a voter is fed up with the politics of both parties, he’s also likely to be a wrong-tracker. Look at the cross-tabs and you see this. Democrats, generally the hardest-hit partisans in this sorry economy, are the most likely to say we’re headed in the right direction. Republicans, even the affluent ones who are doing nicely, are the wrong-trackers. Independents might be the only slice of the electorate that takes economics into account when answering the question anymore. In this goofy context, the question might not tell us as much about the reelectability of an incumbent like Obama. 

In fact, because politics are seemingly more important than economics, I fear that Obama could get a pass on his lousy management of the economy, the deficit and other historically salient fiscal issues. But are politics truly more salient than economics to voters? I seriously doubt it. But I do think that voters have given up on politically generated economic solutions and the prospects for recovery directed by government. Voters are starting to believe that job creation, growth, recovery and turnaround are elusive, certainly something beyond the grasp of an American president, governor or Congress. So because we cannot expect a president to right the economy, we judge him on other criteria, like whether we like him and his family or whether he’s in touch with our social class. 

If this line of reasoning is true, it is more important for the Romney campaign to convince voters that presidents can turn around the economy than to compare and contrast his recovery plans with those of the Obama administration. Unless voters embrace the notion that it actually matters who wins, then the superiority of Romney’s 59-point economic plan will count for little. 

David Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.