For Democrats desperately in search of a way to change the national political environment in advance of the November election, the surprisingly strong April jobs report represents a ray of light in an otherwise gloomy sky.
“The most important determinants of macro midterm outcomes are the economy and presidential popularity, and one of the most important drivers of presidential popularity is the economy,” said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. “So an improving economy is a twofer. If the economy improves, the whole electoral environment for Democrats improves.”
At the moment, President Barack Obama’s ratings on both of those fronts need considerable help. In new Washington Post-ABC News poll numbers, Obama’s overall approval rating was at 41 percent, compared to 52 percent who disapproved. His numbers on the economy were similar, with 42 percent approving and 54 percent disapproving. Those numbers are consistent with where other data have shown Obama for some time.
But that same poll contains evidence of how an improving economy — or at least the perception of an improving economy — could help solve Democrats’ biggest problem heading into the November midterm: a decided passion gap with the Republican base when it comes to the likelihood to vote. Among self-identified Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, three quarters of those who rate the economy positively say they are “absolutely certain to vote” this fall, as compared to just 58 percent of those who rate the economy negatively. It holds then that the more people in this group who believe the economy is doing well, the more likely they are to turn out and vote for Democrats.
“It won’t be an improving economy, it will be the perception of an improving economy,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster. “That would change the president’s job performance, help incumbents, and most important, make it easier for Democrats to increase turnout of young people and unmarried women who feel hardest hit and often forgotten.”
Fred Yang, a Democratic pollster who, along with Republican pollster Bill McInturff, conducts the NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, pointed to more evidence in his data of how the April jobs numbers could change the electoral dynamic. “Our recent NBC/WSJ poll showed that (A) the plurality of the public still understand that, even after six years in office, President Obama inherited the economic mess, and (B) that he got significant credit for the improvements in a tough economic period,” Yang wrote in an email on Friday. “What he was missing was tangible, realistic numbers to back that up, and the current unemployment numbers can only help the president and by extension Democrats in 2014. The extent of that help, of course, is still to be determined.”
Now, one surprisingly upbeat jobs report does not momentum make. Republicans were quick to note the fact that the GDP grew by only 0.1 percent during the first quarter of the year and that the participation in the labor market is at levels not seen since the 1970s.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich acknowledged that “if people came to believe we were growing dynamically, it would help Democrats some,” but added, “Look at Reagan ‘86 off-year Senate losses in recovering economy.” In that election, Republicans lost eight Senate seats and five House seats despite the fact that the unemployment rate was headed south. (Worth noting: While the general trend in the mid 1980s was a declining unemployment rate, the rate was 6.7 percent in January 1986 and 6.9 percent in November of that year.)
Matt McDonald, an economic consultant who has worked on a number of Republican presidential campaigns, offered a more nuanced take on the latest economic report. “Maybe the Obama economy is actually John Edwards’ revenge of two Americas — the America that can get a job and works and the America that can’t,” McDonald said. “Like politics lately getting scrambled by populism, I think our economy is defying easy characterizations right now.”
Agreed. And, one month of good jobs numbers — even with some underlying issues in the report that suggest everything isn’t hunky dory — doesn’t mean the fundamentals of this election (or of second-term midterm elections generally) are altered. But for a Democratic Party badly in need of something/anything that might allow it to close the enthusiasm gap with Republicans, the April jobs report is welcome news.