For more than a quarter century, Democratic election guru James Carville’s “It’s the economy, stupid” campaign manta has been widely accepted as a political truth.
With unemployment at 3.9 percent nationally, and the gross domestic product increasing 4.2 percent in the last quarter — and forecast to increase another 4 percent this quarter — it would seem 2018 will be a good year for Republicans based on that notion that a good economy helps the party in power.
“It’s a big reason to re-elect Republicans,” 1st District Republican Rep. Rod Blum said about the economy. “Over the years, typically the top issues are pocketbook issues. The economy is a big pocketbook issue.”
Blum, who is running for a third term, points out there are more job openings than people seeking jobs, and manufacturing and small business optimism indexes are high.
“People taking more pay home in their paychecks because of tax cuts and in the second quarter, we had the largest pay increases in 10 years,” Blum said. “That’s all good stuff.”
But the message voters seem to be sending this year is: “It’s not the economy, stupid.”
According to a poll from Gallup, which has been asking its classic “most important problem” question since 1939, a record low 12 percent of voters rated the economy as their top concern going into the midterm elections in November.
That’s down from 17 percent a month before and far below the 86 percent who said in February 2009 the economy was their chief concern.
Analysts offer a couple of explanations for why voters are not prioritizing the economy higher.
“When things are good, voters may look elsewhere for their issues,” said Tim Hagle, a University of Iowa political science professor. Voters care about the economy when it is doing poorly. But after it improves, their focus may move on, he said.
“It’s a bit like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (that) once the basics are satisfied — the economy — voters may be more concerned with the next level,” he said.
Add to that, Coe College political science professor Bruce Nesmith said, the fact “traditional indicators like GDP growth and the unemployment rate don’t necessarily speak to people’s living situation.”
Today’s good economic numbers are only marginally different from what they were before President Barack Obama was elected, Nesmith said. But any of the economic problems of those years — stagnant incomes, household debt, regionally weak economies and uncertainty about the future of health care — haven’t gone away.
The GOP tax cut, which was expected to be a major Republican talking point, “seems to have under-impressed most people,” Nesmith said.
The second explanation: President Donald Trump.
Gallup found that voters’ top concern is “dissatisfaction with government/poor leadership.” In the poll, 29 percent cited unhappiness with government as the most pressing issue.
Hagle’s colleague, Cary Covington, a UI political science professor, said Trump is “nationalizing” the midterm election.
“Even if there is locally favorable news about the economy, it will be drowned out by people’s stance vis-à-vis Trump and the Mueller investigation, tariff decisions, etc.,” Covington said.
In today’s hyperpartisan political environment, Covington said, “most everyone views the news from their partisan lens — not only how to interpret a story, but also which stories to pay attention to.”
That means the impact of good news may be limited.
“Pointing out favorable economic indicators may have a positive mobilizing effect for incumbents when reaching out to members of their own party,” said Chris Larimer, political science professor at the University of Northern Iowa, “but such factors are likely to have no effect on members of the opposite party and potentially limited effect on independents.”
Republicans will have to play the cards they are dealt, Covington said. That means talking about good economic news “that is occurring in some places for some people.”
In fact, Gallup points out that the record low percentage of Americans who say the economy is their top concern might be good news for Republicans.
But they also have to deal with what Covington calls the “Trump issues that tend to push voters to vote for Democratic candidates.”
And if talking about the strong economy doesn’t work for incumbents, “going negative and personal seems to be the order of the day,” Nesmith said.