February 2012: Campaign 2012’s key numbers

There are two very consequential numbers for Campaign 2012: the price of a gallon of gas and the direction of the national unemployment rate.

Where they stand over the summer and early fall will decide the balance of power in Washington.

Conventional wisdom holds that the incumbent President and his or her party face trouble with American voters when there are high levels of unemployment and the trend line is moving in the wrong direction—upwards.

President Barack Obama’s approval rating has swung back toward the 50 percent level as the unemployment rate dropped to 8.3 percent in January, the fifth straight month of decline. As the White House noted, there has been private sector job growth for 23 consecutive months.

If that trend continues, it’s likely the President will win another four years in office and Democrats will retain control of the Senate and perhaps make gains in the House.

But it may be premature to conclude that the economy will help Democrats in November.

Trouble ahead?

Gallup’s mid-February survey of Americans showed unemployment climbing to 9 percent: “Regardless of what the government reports, Gallup’s unemployment and underemployment measures show a sharp deterioration in job market conditions since mid-January.” While Gallup’s survey isn’t seasonally adjusted like the Bureau of Labor Statistic’s figures, eventually an upward trend in unemployment will surface in the government numbers.

Some journalists noted that the January 2012 labor participation rate—how many Americans said they were employed or looking for work as a percentage of the total population—had declined to 63.7 percent from 65.7 percent in January 2009. By some calculations, that means 5 million Americans have given up on looking for work.

Obama’s political advisors must be bracing for a negative jobless rate report in the next few months. The historical record suggests that American voters are more influenced by the trend than by the absolute number. Yet the combination of a worsening jobs picture and a historically high unemployment rate may be too much for even the best-run campaign to overcome.

A complicating factor for Obama and the Democrats: the rising price of gasoline, which was hovering around $3.75 a gallon at the end of February. Gas was $1.85 a gallon when President Obama took office. The concern for Democrats is that the price at the pump could rise to more than $4 as summer nears (and some analysts suggest that even $5 a gallon is possible).

The blame game?

There’s no doubt that Democratic strategists see the potential danger ahead in both the jobless rate and the price of gas. They will no doubt turn to the political blame game, since offense is generally better than defense in politics. It’s why President Obama will focus attention on taxing the profits of large oil companies and will reject GOP arguments that he has blocked domestic production of oil and gas. It’s why the President and his allies will try to pin any slowdown in the economy—and in the labor market—on what they will call an obstructionist Republican House.

But as President George H.W. Bush learned in 1992, even 90 percent job approval ratings evaporate when voters think the economy is headed in the wrong direction. Republicans remember quite well the Clinton campaign slogan of “It’s the economy, stupid.” This time around, they may find it a catch phrase that produces results for the GOP in voting booths on Tuesday, November 6th.

Copyright © 2012 Jefferson Flanders
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