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Mellman: Whither the economy

Mellman: Whither the economy
© Greg Nash

Last week, I argued here that voters’ evaluations of economic “realities” are heavily conditioned by their partisan identities.

When asked about the economy, many use their response as an opportunity for partisan cheerleading rather than for “objective” reporting.

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However, the polls seem to be telling us quite different things about the economy.

To take just two examples, a recent Monmouth Poll release was headlined “Few Feel Positive Impact From Growing Economy,” while Gallup claimed “Americans More Positive Over Past Two Years.”

The simple fact is that different questions yield different answers and those answers alone aren’t politically dispositive.

Monmouth asked, “Thinking about your current financial situation, would you say you are struggling to remain where you are financially, basically stable in your current financial situation, or is your financial situation improving?”

Monmouth highlighted the fact that only 23 percent said their situation was improving — not a very impressive number.

At the same time, 51 percent called their circumstances “stable.”

Monmouth focused on the level — the 23 percent who said their situation was improving.

Another way of looking at polling data is to examine momentum — how are things changing. Monmouth apparently asked this question only once before, in January 2017, as President TrumpDonald John TrumpKey takeaways from the Arizona Senate debate Major Hollywood talent firm considering rejecting Saudi investment money: report Mattis says he thought 'nothing at all' about Trump saying he may leave administration MORE was taking office. Since then, the number struggling is down 5 points and the number improving is up 3.

Quite modest change, to be sure, but hinting at improvement.

What about the majority, though, who say they are stable? Should that response be treated as positive or negative?

Other polls suggest it’s pretty positive.

Last month, Gallup found 78 percent of Americans rating their financial situation positively, while just 21 percent went negative.

That certainly suggests that most of the stability in the Monmouth question is a good thing from the point of view of respondents.

That conclusion is buttressed by the famed University of Michigan Survey of Consumers which, in April, found 67 percent of Americans saying their financial situation was better than it was five years ago, compared to 22 percent who felt worse off and 11 percent who said their situation was unchanged.

In the shorter term, many fewer felt a change — 49 percent — while 40 percent felt an improvement and 9 percent said they were worse off.

The Gallup time series confirms that perceptions of one’s personal financial situation change slowly — because most people are in similar circumstances from year to year.

There can be a divergence between voter perceptions of their personal finances and their views of the national economy.

In April, Quinnipiac found 60 percent offering positive views of the national economy with 39 percent negative.

As noted last week, these views are heavily conditioned by partisanship.

But looking at momentum provides additional perspective.

Today’s ratings of the national economy are a whopping 38 points more positive than they were in the same poll in January of 2014.

None of this is to say that everyone is feeling great about their economic situation. They aren’t. Too many people are struggling.

But, it is to say that broad economic concerns have faded.

More evidence of this comes in response to Gallup’s open-ended question about the most important problem facing the nation.

In 2012, almost 80 percent of Americans identified some economic issue as the country’s most important problem. This month, that’s down to 20 percent.

Some fear that positive views of the economy bode poorly for Democrats. It ain’t necessarily so.

Gallup sometimes goes on to ask which party is better able to handle whatever problem respondents identified as most important.

In September of 2014 and 2016, Republicans held a 4-point lead on that question. In the most recent reading, Democrats enjoy a 6 point margin.

The weight of the data on the economy suggests people feel better about it, but that may prove cold comfort for the GOP.

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 and as president of the American Association of Political Consultants.