Republicans shouldn’t fear recovery

With unmistakable signs of economic recovery popping up everywhere, some Republicans are wondering whether economic revival might threaten growing hopes for a GOP surge at the polls in November. The worry springs from suspicions that as recession wanes, more Americans will finally tell pollsters that the country is once again moving in the “right direction,” causing some to vote for continuity by reelecting a Democrat majority. One never wants to ignore potential problems, but Republican anxiety over a little good news about the economy seems inappropriate. 

For starters, public perceptions of something like the economy frequently lag behind quantitative measures of reality. We often see this with crime statistics. Violent crime may decline, yet fears persist, in spite of the statisticians’ reports. One very visible murder is reported in the news and the measures of “index crime” are suddenly ignored or even reviled. Similarly, the economy may be growing, the stock market may rise and furloughed workers you know are recalled, but if that ominous “For Sale” sign in the yard across the street, the one that’s been there for a year, doesn’t go away soon, one’s belief in economic recovery is stymied.

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For many Americans who have become severely depressed by this recession, it’s going to take near-unanimous economic indicators to dispel gloom. Many are so fixated on any bad news. Right now, today, measures of consumer confidence lag behind other measures of economic well-being for just this reason. It’s unrealistic to expect that an across-the-board economic boom is likely to occur in the next six months. 

We should also be skeptical that recovery will be nationwide. There are trouble spots like California, for example, where it would take substantially more than a run-of-the-mill recovery to make a dent in the economic circumstance. Yes, there are regions, like the upper-western Midwest (Iowa, Nebraska, the Dakotas) that were hit less hard by the downturn and will probably rebound faster. But there are other economically ravaged areas, particularly states with serious real estate meltdowns (Florida, Arizona, Nevada), that are bound to be stewing in the real estate slump this November, even if the first-time homebuyer tax credit is extended. But it may not be, in which case the response will be more shadows in ReMax-land.

The likely uneven pace of recovery brings its own reasons for angst and dissatisfaction. If one state or region is booming, while mine is still lagging, I look for scapegoats, and the party in charge may, as usual, get the blame. If industries other than my own are using stimulus funds to get back on track while my unsubsidized industry continues to stumble, resentment smolders. 

In the end, Americans are microeconomic organisms. They could care less about “leading economic indicators” and the overall macroeconomic picture if there’s no chicken in their own pot. As someone once said so eloquently, “Unemployment may be declining, but if you are unemployed, the unemployment rate stands at 100 percent.” The same is true if your recent college grad is unemployed or your neighbor or friend can’t find work.

There’s another subnational reason to question beliefs that Democrats will singularly benefit from an improving economy. Despite growth in retail sales, most states will require more than a few good months to get whole. States are making do with stimulus money. But once those dollars run out by fall, budgets will experience back-to-school deficits. I’m betting that in Democrat-controlled legislatures there will be a lot of talk of raising taxes. Even if Republicans block such moves, the conversation about taxes and spending will dominate the news and distract voters from focusing on the improved larger economic outlook.

Republicans shouldn’t be caught selling our country’s economy short. Recovery (or not) won’t play a major nationwide role in November.

Hill has been a Republican pollster since 1984. This cycle he is polling for gubernatorial campaigns in four states.