Is it the economy, stupid?
October 3rd, 2012
10:42 AM ET

Is it the economy, stupid?

By Bruce Stokes, Special to CNN

Bruce Stokes is the director of Global Economic Attitudes at the Pew Research Center. Pew Research Center election polling results can be found here. The views expressed are his own.

“The economy, stupid!”, quipped Democratic political consultant James Carville in his now iconic description of the fundamental issue of the 1992 U.S. presidential campaign. In 2012, political analysts echoed that phrase in framing the race for the White House between the incumbent President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney. But as the candidates head into a series of pivotal debates starting tonight, is it really the economy that will determine the election’s outcome?

Recent polling data from the Pew Research Center and others confirms that the economy is the principal concern of the American public as they prepare to vote. And increasingly, voters are not so sure which candidate would do the best job on economic issues. But Obama’s recent rise in the polls suggests that Americans’ voting preference is based on a range of issues, not just the economy. And the public’s views of the personality traits of the two candidates may be every bit as important as the issues in choosing between Obama and Romney.

With the upcoming debates, expected massive expenditures by both candidates on television advertising and uncertain national jobs numbers to be released before election day, Romney still has a chance to make the sale to the American people. Persuadable voters still strongly favor his future stewardship of the economy.

However, roughly a month before election day, the mood of the American voter suggests “it’s not just the economy, stupid!”

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By the last week of September, president Obama had opened up a lead in nearly all the major presidential public opinion surveys. Pew had Obama ahead by nine percentage points among registered voters. The New York Times/CBS news and the Wall Street Journal/NBC news had him up by six, the Washington Post/ABC news survey had him up by five points, and Gallup had him up by four.

Voters have long told pollsters that the economy is the most important issue facing the country. In key swing states, such as Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, this focus on the economy over any other particular issue is by a margin of more than two-to-one, according to polls by the New York Times, CBS News and Quinnipiac University. And, as recently as July and August, in swing states such as Colorado and Wisconsin, people said they thought Romney would do a better job handling the country’s economic challenges. Now, both nationally and in most of these battleground states, Romney’s advantage on the economy has either narrowed or disappeared.

Why? One explanation may be that people, especially Democrats, are feeling better about the economy. Consumer confidence rose nine percentage points in September, according to the Conference Board.

But the Obama poll numbers may also reflect the totality of trust in him in dealing with a range of issues. By 53 percent to 38 percent voters say they believe Obama would do the best job in making wise foreign policy decisions. By 51 percent to 38 percent they think the president would do a better job dealing with Medicare, the U.S. health insurance program for the elderly.

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The Obama lead may have even more to do with the public’s sense of the two candidates’ personalities. By nearly three-to-one, people think Obama connects better with ordinary Americans. By 51 percent to 37 percent they believe he shows good judgment in a crisis. And by 50 percent to 40 percent that he shares their values.

Nevertheless, the economy could still prove decisive on election day. The latest Pew Research survey found 22 percent of voters to be persuadable: 7 percent who say they have not made up their minds yet and another 15 percent who either say they are thinking of voting for Obama but could vote for Romney, or are likely to vote for Romney but may vote for Obama.

People in this group still strongly believe that Romney would do the best job both in improving the country’s employment situation (by 44 percent to 27 percent) and in reducing the federal budget deficit (by 46 percent to 19 percent). So Romney’s final economic message may yet hold great appeal for these swing voters.

At the same time, however, these same persuadable voters also give Obama an even greater advantage on some personality traits: by about four-to-one, they think Obama more than Romney connects with ordinary Americans. They also say Obama shows better judgment in a crisis, is a stronger leader and more consistent in his positions.

So, in an American presidential election that pundits long believed would only be about the economy and in which the jobless rate and the rising government deficit would make Obama vulnerable, a month before the election the president may be in a position to be reelected, in spite of the nation’s economic troubles. This is, in part, because of voters’ reservations about Mitt Romney, who has the lowest favorable rating of any presidential candidate in Pew Research September surveys going back to 1988.

The American public appears to be telling pollsters it is not just the economy, stupid. It is also foreign policy, health care and simply whether the candidate connects well with ordinary Americans.

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Topics: 2012 Election • Barack Obama • Economy • Mitt Romney

soundoff (21 Responses)
  1. krm1007 ©™

    Yes, other issues matter too. We need to start focusing on India as a matter of foreign policy. Here is the reason why and its importance for American economy.

    The American invasion of Afghanistan brought to the forefront the irrelevance of India as a nation. With a population of over 1.2 billion people there was no value that this nation could bring to the table. Their soldiers (ragtag) 1.2 million continue hiding in the trenches scared from Talibans. A few teenage Talibans invaded the country and held it hostage for days on end showing how useless India is. It was embarrasing for the world to observe this humiliation of a nation that was being touted as a regional power.

    Now, I continue to read with interest the thesis presented on CNN that "less is more" in a political context as applied to India. Although Mies Van Der Rohe adopted this in an architectural context, its economic and political connotations are indeed powerful. Empowering subjugated minorities in India by splitting it into smaller states would trigger uber economic demand for western nations who have given so much financial and technology aid to India with no return to show for the investment. I concur with this approach and find the premise to be on solid footing. Central Asian States (CAS) are a case in point on this successful approach. We need to understand that India has an unmanageable large population mired in poverty and we are spinning our wheels trying to feed it. It is also too big of a geographical unit to govern. Again, we saw how a few teenage talibans were able to invade it with a few BB guns. And that says a lot... in a negative way not only for a large unmanageable country like India but also for USA which is trying to prop it up against China. Besides, Americans cannot afford to look like losers in the midst of a terror war which has lasted for over ten years now.

    October 3, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Reply
    • ecobgreen

      Last I heard – very few people pay taxes in India – like about 1.5% of the population. A Republican dream come true. But of course the tax rate being what it is in India – having a large – well trained – army – is impossible. Similarly the US military budget is entirely paid by debt. All China has to do – is not buy our debt – poof – no expensive military. We currently spend all our money on old people and the very poor - if we dump them – we get to have a big bad ass military into the future.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:03 am | Reply
      • Nunu

        A 75% tax rate in France, Obama's dream!

        October 6, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
    • ecobgreen

      Last I heard – very few people pay taxes in India – like about 1.5% of the population. A Republican dream come true. But of course the tax rate being what it is in India – having a large – well trained – army – is impossible. Similarly the US military budget is entirely paid by debt. All China has to do – is not buy our debt – poof – no expensive military. We currently spend all our money on old people and the very poor - if we dump them – we get to have a big bad military into the future.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:04 am | Reply
  2. dw

    it all matters

    October 3, 2012 at 5:27 pm | Reply
  3. Sally

    In my view the outcome of the vote for the whole world is immense. People are waiting and America is again giving a leading example for the political agenda in every single european country. It is a question if the the neo-conservative ideals are still valid. There was the tradition after the second world-war with the aim of reaching a quick culturimperialistic wealth, treaties basing purely on interests in crude oil and natural resources, cheap ideological views mostly one-sided and from the view of imposing power through government with militia and authorities. This was enough, because progress was made in science and in the daily life – everything went always better, the impact for the individual person was directly seen. Changing this, means giving up these ideals (steady progress, rising income) and questioning their basic principles, their prejudices and superficial impressions and probably moralty and impacts on climate and environmental aspects. The speedy easy-going means the quick solution must be an aim that is again quickly reached without obstacles, without too many complications and sufferings. With R. Reagan it was enough that a film-star become president, who never knew too much about maths, haven't read too many books and merly talked nicely. The show was wanted and not the honest statement. So expecially the sentimental nostalgic view of older people is searching for the propper president, who promises and talks nicely about growths, the nations supreme position in the world and the blessing of God – at the end. This makes a nice carricature to summ up the whole pathetic theatre and again four years later. To say that the difference between Romney and Obama isn't great, diminishes the importance of the vote for the individual person. If a president is able to show his individual biography and can convince others that it is possible to succeed and climb the ladder to become president – this makes an enormous difference. It's a personal bonus! And if he wants to stick to politics that allows the individual person to get a share as well, – I mean Romney's thesis and ideals are so empty.... where can he show that his fate wasn't normal, a white son's path of every rich white-american? Did he experience daily suffering, not knowing how to buy food and borrowing money from friends, without knowing to give it back? And didn't he and Ryan never questioned the impression of posing with family – members in public? It' s so american and so stiffy, but everybody knows, that family harmony on a photo doesn't last a life time and a little bit more must be done to keep it. People decide about the future of conservative values – keep them in the air like nice rosy balloons and shoot if necessary to demonstrate power, or to bring them down to get in touch with them and bring them into a diplomatic discussion ..

    October 4, 2012 at 3:52 am | Reply
  4. the truth

    Why is obama leading? Liberals are more concerned with who they rather have a beer with than the economy

    October 4, 2012 at 3:56 am | Reply
    • Jon

      Obama is leading because his policies actually make sense and he actually cares about the middle class. Romney-Ryan want to give a 5 trillion dollar tax cut to the rich, while giving nothing but lip service to the deficit. Romney claimed in the debate that the 5 trillion would be made up by closing "loop holes", but that is baloney: as the president pointed out, if you add up all the loop holes, it doesn't add up to 5 trillion. Romney says he doesn't want to pay for Big Bird if he has to borrow it from China. But evidently he has no problem with paying for 5 trillion dollar tax cuts for the rich (which costs about 10,000 times more than all of PBS) by borrowing the money from China.

      October 7, 2012 at 6:56 pm | Reply
    • Lizzy04

      Actually, that's why W was elected... People thought he would be fun to have a beer with (and I guarantee you, no Liberal would have voted for that moron).

      October 22, 2012 at 5:54 pm | Reply
  5. j. von hettlingen

    the site is jammed!

    October 4, 2012 at 7:42 am | Reply
  6. j. von hettlingen

    Some blame Obama for not doing better than four years ago. That the country's economy hasn't picked up yet, it's not entirely his fault. A Republican could have done better.

    October 4, 2012 at 8:15 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Please read: COULDN'T have done better! Of course not everybody can feel the improvement. Those who are disappointed might not re-elect Obama. It's unfortunate that their interests and wellbeing go before the nation's.

      October 4, 2012 at 8:17 am | Reply
  7. Charlie Muse

    This guy is history. Into oblivion ina few months

    October 4, 2012 at 3:41 pm | Reply
    • Chesapeake

      that would be a nice xmas gift

      October 5, 2012 at 6:34 pm | Reply
  8. Peace

    is israel bombing syria? don't let them drag us into their messes.

    October 4, 2012 at 6:58 pm | Reply
    • Karel de Grote

      Founding the state of Israel in 1948 at the expense of the Palestinians was a historical mistake of all times.....all of today's ME problems and world wide terrorism originate from this epic error.

      October 9, 2012 at 1:33 am | Reply
  9. SDabby

    One issue not mentioned is that Governor Romney is more likely to get us involved in another war.
    I wonder how he will pay for another war without adding to the deficit?

    October 6, 2012 at 12:52 pm | Reply
  10. Bruce

    The reason the economies of western Societies are hard it is because such a large portion of there industrial base has been moved to cheaper labor markets and those who benefited from that move are not being required to pay an income tax structure to cover this countries bills.Those who have benefited from the transfer of the US industrial base and, ironically, also poorly educated white working class will vote Republican. Those who have benefited from transfering US industrial sector to China vote Republican simply because they think they will most likely pay less taxes.The poor white working class vote Republican because they are predjudice against non-whites and many who are not really bad people just rationalize it as another reason.The rest of America votes Democratic because historically the Democratic party has done a little more for the middle class and the poor.Not always but more commonly.When Republicans help the poor it is usually out of an outcome of the ending of a needed program and people get hurt. Reagan for example cut medicaid and the end result tens of thousands of mentally ill people died so he completely reveresed his plan but it was too late.Nixon tried to make National Healthcare so they nailed him for Watergate but it was really about stopping National healthcare.The Kennedy's were executed by the ((blank)) because they went after big corporate crime. Other than perception the differences between both parties are smaller than we think. Both parties create a false illusion to make us the citizens believe the differences are larger than we think.

    October 7, 2012 at 7:18 am | Reply
  11. Bill

    Obama has done a fine job of portraying Romney as an evil "rich" person, in order to avoid any more important topics like his failure in leadership (creating the most divided Congress in memory) and policies. Democrats are stating that he should have used the 47% remark during the debate. But again, that is not a discussion about policiies, but about Romney being rich. This is all the Democrats have to work with, and sadly, American voters are so cerebrally challenged, that the strategy is working. If Romney was either not rich or came from a middle class family, Obama would be, with no doubt, behind it the polls.

    October 8, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Reply
    • Lizzy04

      That's because Mitt Romney IS an evil rich person. And how did he make his billions? Putting others out of work. This stuff isn't made up, pal.

      October 22, 2012 at 5:56 pm | Reply
  12. Karel de Grote

    By Large it is the Republicans that laid the foundation for the GFC first, when they abolished the gold standard as backing for the US dollar and again when they deregulated the financial markets....all under Alan Greenspan's watch. George Bush wrecked the economy further by going into senseless wars like Iraq and Afghanstan...borrowing money to do so. Obama inheritated an economic disaster not seen since will take 10 more years to sort this out!

    October 9, 2012 at 1:29 am | Reply

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