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Mellman: Changing fundamentals boost Democrats

A hiring sign is displayed in a store window as a man walks past
Associated Press-Nam Y. Huh
A hiring sign is displayed at a gas station as a customer walks past in Buffalo Grove, Ill., Thursday, June 9, 2022. Fewer Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week as the U.S. job market remains strong in the face of rising inflation and interest rates. Applications for jobless aid fell by 3,000 to 329,000 for the week ending June 11, the Labor Department reported Thursday, June 16.

Democrats’ electoral prospects improved in recent months as a function of several developments, including the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization abortion decision and Democratic legislative successes. 

Some have taken the improvement as a sign that “fundamentals” no longer count. 

A careful sifting of the evidence suggests, on the contrary, that Democrats’ fortunes improved in part because the fundamentals have shifted in our direction. The movement isn’t huge, and we can’t be certain it will continue, but the rules of politics are being reinforced, not rewritten. 

When things are going well, the party in power is rewarded; when things are going poorly, the White House party is punished. Surely one of the most important “things” going well is the economy. 

 The Biden administration is justifiably proud of its record-setting job creation. Some 9.5 million jobs were created under this president, “the fastest growth in all of American history.”  

However, history tells us that employment is not the most politically salient economic indicator.  

Upon reflection, it’s easy to understand why. While nearly 10 million is a lot of jobs; with more than 158 million Americans working, at least 94 percent of them don’t owe their employment to the administration’s policies.  

Those who got jobs should be eternally grateful, but most others are like the gentleman who said in a focus group the other day, “There are more jobs around, but the cost of everything I buy is going up and my pay isn’t.” Nearly everybody sees inflation, and most believe it’s having a deleterious impact on their standard of living. 

 One economic indicator that takes these factors and more into account — unemployment, wages, inflation, taxes, government transfer payments, etc. — is change in per capita real disposable income. Regular readers may recall me droning on about it over the years. It’s not a measure that gets much public attention, but it is something people feel each time they reach into their wallets. Research shows it’s the economic indicator most strongly related to political outcomes. 

A first-derivative nation, we tend to be more sensitive to change than to levels. The slope of the trend line is more important than the absolute numbers.  

The three big pandemic rescue bills gave huge shots in the wallet to Americans, raising incomes considerably. But as those payments ended and inflation kicked in, real disposable incomes fell, costing the president support. 

Now, however, things are changing. In July (the most recent data available) real disposable income was up.  

That’s just the tiniest smidgen of data and we can’t be certain it’s a trend, but we have at least some evidence Americans are feeling better about their economic circumstances. 

Consumer sentiment, as measured by University of Michigan surveys, hit a record low in June. But both July and August saw big gains.  

Remember, we react more to change than to levels. 

The numbers are still low, but if those gains are sustained, improved economic reality will continue having a direct, positive effect on Democratic prospects, while also bolstering another fundamental — presidential approval.  

President Biden reached a low point in July, when fewer than 38 percent approved of his performance in FiveThirtyEight.com’s poll compilation. Today, his approval is 5 points higher. Modest movement, and not a great number by historical standards, but it is change in a positive direction.  

In midterms, presidential approval is the best surrogate we have for the partisan disposition of the electorate, another fundamental. Partisanship is usually relative — who is farther ahead or behind. In their own elections, presidents have opponents. In midterms they don’t.  

Never, however, has an opponent loomed so large on the national stage during a midterm as former President Trump.  

At the end of July, President Biden was running even with Trump. Now he’s running 6 points ahead of his predecessor in polls from YouGov and the Wall Street Journal. (Trump’s own pollster co-directs the latter survey.) 

Fundamentals create the background against which individual races are run, but those structural dynamics have shifted in small but consistent ways, toward the Democrats. 

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.

Tags 2022 midterm elections Abortion Biden campaign Election 2022 Jobs

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