Voters are deeply frustrated with the economy as they head to the polls Tuesday for a midterm election Republicans hope will yield them control of the Senate.
While the unemployment rate is dropping, the economy is expanding and gas prices are below $3 per gallon, polls show that most voters feel the recovery has passed them by.
“We find that most people say they’re falling behind or at best staying even,” said Alec Tyson, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center. “Even as the overall employment picture may be improving, people aren’t feeling it in their own wages and day-to-day lives.”
The persistent dissatisfaction in year six of President Obama’s term is an ominous sign for Democrats, and could foreshadow major losses for the party on Election Day.
While Obama has increasingly tried to trumpet positive news about the economy, polling shows the message hasn’t resonated with voters.
That’s partly because wages aren’t outpacing inflation, according to Josh Bivens, research and policy director at the Economic Policy Institute.
“Six years really should be enough time to get people’s economic lives back on track after a recession and we really have not. We obviously have stopped the downward spiral, stabilized things, we even got some growth, but we still are really far from a full economic recovery,” he said.
A full economic recovery would feature an unemployment rate near 4 percent — it’s now at 5.9 percent — and wage growth at about double the rate that’s being seen now, Bivens said.
Some experts noted that, historically, there has been a time lag between gains in the economy and improvement in peoples’ bank accounts.
“We’ve seen this before. You get close to the election, you’ve had a long period of anxiety, things start to pick up and it doesn’t happen in time to benefit the party in power,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Jamieson said the economy started to pick up at the end of the 1992 presidential campaign, but voters weren’t feeling the benefits and didn’t give credit to President George H.W. Bush.
And while leading economic indicators might on the surface show progress, Jamieson said there are other factors fueling voter unhappiness, including wild swings in the stock market.
“In light of the recent volatility in the market and the fact that the employment rate is not as high as many people think it needs to be, you can understand why people still feel economically anxious and don’t think they ought to reward incumbents with a hurrah.”
Obama, after taking heat for declaring a “recovery summer” ahead of the 2010 election that never materialized, has walked a fine line of touting gains in the economy while acknowledging that many people aren’t feeling the effects.
With growth picking up, the president has taken a more bullish approach in recent weeks, declaring that the recovery is “real.”
“There's almost no economic measure by which we haven't made substantial progress over this period of time,” Obama said Friday during a roundtable event in Rhode Island. “We're better off than we were. So, look. The progress has been hard … but it's been steady and it's been real.”
Still, the president acknowledged that, “millions of Americans don't yet feel the benefits of a growing economy where it matters most, and that's in their own lives.”
Jamieson said Obama should have made the case for an improving economy more forcefully earlier in the year.
“To the extent that those who are in power are not featuring positive things, they’re minimizing the likelihood that we remember them when we make our evaluation of the economy,” she said.
Democrats have in past election years benefitted from the fact that voters blamed President George W. Bush for the crash of the economy, but that effect has faded now that Obama is well into his second term, Jamieson said.
A series of pre-election surveys have found most voters across the country still identify the economy and jobs as their top concern, with the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Ebola epidemic ranking lower or not at all.
Lara Brown, director of the Political Management Program at The George Washington University, said Democrats should have spent less time in the midterm campaign discussing social issues and more time on the economy.
“The truth of the matter is that, had I been a Democrat, starting this summer, I would have said, ‘Look the American people say they care about the economy, we should make all of our messaging about the economy. Our message should be, ‘It took a long time for us to start recovering. We’re finally starting to recover. Don’t go back to what got us in the whole thing.’ ”
At the same time, Brown said she’s unsure how much that message would have benefitted Democrats. If voters aren’t feeling the economic changes, candidates could have appeared out-of-touch by making the case too strongly.
Angst about the economy has clearly helped tilt Tuesday’s election in the GOP’s favor.
A CBS News poll in the last week found likely voters prefer Republicans on the economy to Democrats by 7 percentage points.
If Republicans win the majority in the Senate and the economy improves even further, both parties will be battling to ensure they get the credit in the all-important presidential year of 2016.
“Who is given credit for that when we have a divided government is going to be very interesting,” Brown said. “I will honestly tell you that I think it’s going to make the 2016 presidential campaign very competitive. I can easily see both sides attempting to claim credit for it.”