Results don’t jibe with economics

This week a client, planning on a local tax election in 2013 or 2014, asked whether we should be polling on voters’ views of the economy and resistance to tax increases. In most circumstances, I would have said yes, but given the state of affairs since 2008 I am not sure it matters. It has often been said that we might be in a “new normal” when it comes to the economy. It’s hard to argue against that. Whereas we once all believed that we’ll break free of this wobbly attempt at economic recovery, I am afraid that the chain has fallen off the bike and there is now no way to pedal up the hill. 

This is a big deal. There has always been a strong linkage between economics and politics. “Up” cycles helped incumbents. “Down” cycles hurt them. But in 2012 we saw most all incumbents returned, despite the plunge. Even now, as the politicians fiddle toward non-resolution of the so-called fiscal cliff, thereby threatening deepened recession, the public seems oblivious. It’s why the two parties don’t feel any particular urgency to act. There is no push from the people.

Yes, I am aware that consumer confidence surveys taken just before the election signaled a small uptick over ones taken earlier in 2012. But compared to what were consumers optimistic? Not to earlier economies. The Conference Board’s index stood at 73.1 in October and 73.7 in November. But from 1995 to 2005, the index scores were in the 100-to-120 range most months (punctuated by occasional brief dips that always rebounded). If index scores in the 70s are taken to be signs of optimism, God help us.

A recent school board conference in Colorado highlighted this trend of voting that ignores the economy. Colorado, as many know, has a Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights that forces elections on most public spending for schools. Whereas the 2011 elections were a meltdown, with most financial proposals rejected by voters because of the economy, the recent election was a smashing success, despite the economy. Thirty-one school districts proposed 38 different tax, spending or borrowing measures. All but three passed, some by landslide margins. Over a billion dollars in new education initiatives was authorized. And the successes were not just in stronger metro economies, like Denver’s, but also in rural climes. The economy and election results were apparently disconnected.

Going forward, it might not be fair to generalize the November 2012 results to 2013 and beyond. It’s possible that voters ignored the economy in 2012 in order to reduce conflicts with their partisanship. Some downscale and semi-conservative Democrats who might occasionally vote against taxes in a down economy, feeling that they just can’t pay more, might have been pressured to vote like a real Democrat for more taxes and spending, to prove they are not a Republican. Even independent and unaffiliated voters might have supported taxes more than usual to prove they weren’t Neanderthal Republicans. That’s what the hyperpartisan atmosphere of fall 2012 wrought. Things might settle down to where voters can vote their pocketbooks rather than their party affiliation. Keep an eye on it. It’s also true that schools and other public entities have been hard up for so long in the prolonged downturn that they have genuine needs that voters can no longer ignore, regardless of taxpayers’ perceived abilities to pay more.

The 2013 and 2014 elections should be interesting. Will the economy ever improve in any significant way? Will voters continue to keep consumer confidence and willingness to pay more taxes (or incur more public debt) in separate buckets? Will economics lose its hold on politics forever? I cannot see that happening, but who knows?

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