Days of future past

With commentators offering a dizzying array of perspectives on the relationship between the economy and voting, it is hard to separate fact from fable, analysis from anecdote, history from hypothesis.

Just last week, my sparring partner in these pages, the distinguished Dr. David Hill, sought to reassure Republicans who see “unmistakable signs of economic recovery popping up everywhere.” “Some Republicans,” Hill confessed, “are wondering whether economic revival might threaten growing hopes for a GOP surge at the polls in November.” David concluded that “Republican anxiety over a little good news about the economy” is misplaced. “Recovery (or not) won’t play a major nationwide role in November.”

Put me down as “disagree strongly.”

Democrats would be foolish to count on a recovery and even sillier to assume it will ameliorate all of our political woes, but much of what pundits have to say about the politics of the economy is less than fully supported by history, data or analysis.

One oft-repeated theme is that it takes voters a long time to notice recoveries. The common refrain is that it takes six (or four or seven or 12) months of good economic news for the public to register the recovery, and given the inexorable march of the calendar, there just isn’t time for a return of economic growth to reverse Democrats’ political fortunes.

In truth, no one really knows how long it takes for voters to respond to positive economic news. Some Americans have already heard good news. Last March, just 4 percent had heard favorable news about the employment picture — a figure that rose to 25 percent by this March. A year ago March, just 5 percent had heard any good economic news, but by September 39 percent had.

Does any of this news affect economic expectations? It seems to. As we went into election 2008, just a quarter expected improved business conditions in the following year. By this past September the figure had jumped to 43 percent. In Gallup’s most recent measurement, 41 percent said the economy is getting better, twice as many as reported that feeling a year ago.

On Tuesday, the Conference Board revealed that its consumer confidence index for April was at its highest level in a year and a half.

Of course, some prognosticators will tell you that voters discount the future; elections, they contend, are referenda on past economic performance. Others will quickly argue the opposite case, citing data demonstrating that future expectations carry more electoral clout than past performance. And finally, a third set of analysts will claim the other two are both right — past and future count.

We certainly see the importance of future expectations in our polling. In one recent statewide survey, voters who thought the economy would get better in the next year backed the Democrat by better than a 40-point margin, while those who thought things would get worse favored the Republican by 20 points. Unfortunately, in that poll (using our question, which is different from Gallup’s) just over a third now expect economic change for the better.

However, the number anticipating improvement can change, and that is critical for Democratic prospects in November. If, going into Election Day, voters believe we have reached the point of economic inflection, if they can look into the future and see improvement, Democrats will likely suffer only average losses. (Of course, average losses are pretty bad — some 26 seats.)

The critical issue here is not whether voters are experiencing a significantly improved economy — alas, that remains rather unlikely — but whether they believe improvement will be forthcoming in the clearly foreseeable future.

On the other hand, if we do not reach that point of inflection, if sufficient numbers do not expect near-term improvement, November could prove much worse for Democrats.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.