Why Good Economy Doesn’t Help in Mid-Terms

VoteAs 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.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

6 thoughts on “Why Good Economy Doesn’t Help in Mid-Terms

  1. Forgive me for the my ungrammatical sentence. Is there really an “the economy” any more? Different sectors, different regions and most importantly, different social classes, have had radically different experiences these last five years. Furthermore, this election flies in the face of conventional wisdom that prosperity helps incumbents. The people who have done well during this recovery, the people who have captured most of the GDP and income gains since 2009, opposed Obama and Democrats.

    Meanwhile, many demographic groups, that have not done well, support Obama and the Dems. The economic election models, that give the party in power electoral wins and loses based on macro economic data, have had good predictive power in the past but secular stagnation seems to be changing all of that.

    • That’s what I’m getting at here. Pretty much everything I know about political science I learned from Lynn Vavreck and she says that there really is no such effect in off-year elections. It is really strange because economics is pretty much the only thing that matters in presidential elections. I’m still trying to figure it out, and this article is an initial attempt at that.

      You make a good point about “the” economy. There are overall trends, though. I think the main thing is that the vast majority being cut off from the economic recovery isn’t about economic isolation. The rich and the poor exist in the same economy. It is policies like looking the other way regarding union busting that allow the rich to take an unnatural chunk of the economic gain — generally all of it.

  2. I believe that in 2016 and 2020, Demographics and turnout will drive the election and not GDP, U3 or the S&P. For every Midwestern hausfrau and salary man, who will weigh the facts and carefully deliberate between the Democratic and the Republican candidates, there are three working class whites who will either vote Republican or not vote at all and there are about ten millennials, black people, Latinos and single women who will vote Democrat or not vote at all.

    As is the case with so many things, secular stagnation, changes the rules. Republicans could win if they nominate a strong conservative and Democrats pick someone who is so such a centrist that she innervates large swathes of the Obama coalition. In a polarized country, in the midst of a prolonged depression, with few swing voters, radicalism can be a virtue. I think that whichever guy or gal most displeases Tom Friedman and David Brooks will win in 2016.

    • I’d like to see some research on what you mention, because I suspect that it really is something like you suggest. There are discouraged Republicans who often don’t vote — it is just that they are a much smaller fraction of Republican voters than the corresponding voters for Democrats. I would think it would be a pretty simple longitudinal study to get some hard data on that. It may exist; I will have to look.

      I am very eager to believe that Democrats don’t vote in the mid-terms because the party doesn’t offer them anything to get excited about. But I don’t see a lot of evidence for that. But let’s be clear: it is easier to vote if you are an affluent retiree. If you work three jobs and care for two kids, it is a lot harder to vote, even without everything that the government does to stop you from voting like registration and ID requirements and long lines at the polls. Interestingly, at my relatively rich very white polling place, there are never lines. On the other hand, when I lived in a relatively rich, racially mixed area in Richmond, there were not only long lines, but the polling places changed every year. A coincidence? I haven’t believed such fairy tales since I was five.

      I think people should be paid for voting. It could be a sliding scale and paid out via tax returns. A number of countries do it the opposite way: tax fees for not voting. Maybe we could have a hybrid system: pay the poor to vote and tax the rich for not voting. But we won’t do this any time soon because America is not a democracy. But the only way to make progress is to demand what seems impossible.

  3. I completely agree about the disparity involving the actual voting infrastructure. As you said, even without an active effort to keep Democratic voters away from the polls, we see a disparity in turnout. Nevertheless, Democratic voters are capable of enduring long lines and attempts at voter suppression during quadrennial years and if they could do so for a few midterms, municipal and primary elections, they could change how elections are held and people in poor and non white neighborhoods could start to see shorter lines and easy to find polling places and eventually a program to pay low income voters.

    It is a chicken and an egg thing but someone has to turn this vicious cycle of low-turnout and antidemocratic election policies into a virtuous cycle of high-turnout and pro-democracy election policies. The politicians seem unwilling so it falls to the public, to people power to vote and serve as a genuine democratic spark.

    • Exactly. What people need to understand is that consistent voting — even when the candidates are crummy centrist Democrats — will lead to more and more liberal candidates. It would make the whole nation more small-d democratic. And that would mean that the Republicans could not get away with being an extremist party. I think the Democratic Party might be able to solve this problem if it were really interested in it rather than in maintaining the power elite status quo.

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