As you probably know, I am an amateur political scientist. I don’t mean this in terms of all the ranting I do here — fine though the ranting may be. I mean that I have created my own little election models and I have developed a couple of theories that professional political scientists would scoff at. And one of the most vexing things that I’ve noticed is that what’s going on in the economy is of fundamental importance to which party wins in presidential elections, but it seems to have absolutely no effect at all in mid-term years. I understand why it is important in presidential elections: the economy is of primary importance to people. It makes no sense that it wouldn’t matter in off-year elections.
Look at this year. the unemployment rate started at 6.6% in January and it was down to 5.8% last month. You don’t believe this number because of the discouraged worker effect? Fine! The Civilian Employment-Population Ratio was 58.2% in January and it is 59.2% now — a remarkable increase in just one year. Or let’s look at the number of jobs added to the economy this year: we’ve added an average (pdf) of over 220,000 jobs per month this year. That’s better than last year when we didn’t even manage 200,000 jobs per month.
The the economy is really doing better. If this had been a presidential election year, the party in the White House (nominally the Democrats) would have won by a landslide. Yet they did not. The Democrats lost in a landslide. How can this be?! Is it as simple as Matt Yglesias says, “Life isn’t fair.” Well, no; it isn’t as simple as that, because what happened this year is exactly what happened in 2010 when the economy had flatlined. Yet the people still punished the party that was in the White House.
It’s important — even critical — to remember that the president shouldn’t get credit for the economy. Most of what Obama has done has been bad for the economy. The Fiscal Cliff deal was probably worth doing, but the timing was bad and it harmed the economy in the short term. A better thing to have done would have been to trade two more years of the low top tax rates for a continuation of the payroll tax holiday. But more important, Obama allowed himself to be blindsided with the Debt Ceiling, which led to the Sequester. That’s been an enormous drag on the economy. Yet, as always, economies do heal and that is what we are seeing.
But given that the voters punish presidents for bad economic trends and reward them for good economic trends, why don’t they do this during off-year elections? Why do they ignore the economy when he isn’t running? And note: Obama’s approval rating is eleven points under water, even though times are fairly good and they are getting better.
I think this is all about perceptions of un-engaged voters. People think that who is president really does matter. But almost half don’t think it matters who controls Congress. Other polls have shown that a large percentage of the nation don’t even know which party controls Congress. These are the people who reward the party in the White House for good economic trends. And these people simply don’t show up for mid-term elections because they don’t think the elections matter.
So we come back, once again, to turnout. And this speaks incredibly poorly of our democracy. This isn’t even a partisan issue. Whether politicians deserve it or not, the voters don’t reward or punish them on the state of the nation when it isn’t a presidential election. Many pundits wonder why the Republicans are so extreme and unwilling to change to appeal to the people. But why should they?! They know that their political destinies are rarely linked to what the people what.
The real question is what the Democratic Party is going to do. How can the electorate be made to vote based upon the state of things? But maybe the Democratic power elite don’t want that. After all, their economic policies are pretty much the same as the Republicans’. Maybe the last thing they want is for the people to start rewarding actual liberal economic policy. That would hurt all their billionaire friends. But that just brings me back to the point I made yesterday, We Must Make the Democratic Party Better. We the people need to control the party, and that means getting money out of politics. Until we do, we are destined to oscillate from Democrat to Republican as the country slowly loses even the pretense of democracy.