Opinion Elections aren’t only about ‘the economy, stupid’ — and never were
The economy is not the singular, overriding factor that decides American elections — and it really never was. It’s not just “the economy, stupid.”
That three-word mantra was written on a sign in the headquarters of Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 campaign. Thirty years later, it’s still invoked regularly. And the view that elections ride on the state of the economy and the parties’ stands on pocketbook issues remains dominant among both journalists and people who work in politics, particularly Democrats.
Even before most Americans have voted, there is already commentary that Democrats have lost this year’s elections because the party has focused too much on abortion and not enough on economics and inflation, particularly high gas prices.
I don’t buy it. There are five main reasons to be skeptical of this economic-centered perspective:
First, there is one constant in American elections — the president’s party loses House seats in midterms. That has happened in 18 of the last 20 midterm elections, dating back to 1942. (The president’s party has lost ground in the Senate in 14 of those elections.)
The economy isn’t bad every midterm election.
Election experts say there are two explanations for the president’s party almost always doing badly in the midterms — and neither is about the economy. One is that the people in the president’s party vote at lower rates than those in the opposition party — anger perhaps being a stronger motivator than approval. The other reason is that the small bloc of voters who aren’t aligned with the Democrats or the Republicans often swing against the president’s party, looking to balance power in Washington.
If this year’s midterms follow historical patterns, Democrats will lose about 40 House seats simply based on President Biden’s low approval ratings and the fact that the party controls the presidency, according to Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll. That’s leaving aside any economic factors.
Second, a good economy doesn’t guarantee a party will win an election — nor does a so-so economy ensure defeat. Economic conditions were fairly good in 2000, 2006, 2014 and 2018, years where the party in control of the White House lost electorally. They weren’t good in 2012, when President Barack Obama won reelection.
Whether GDP growth, the unemployment rate, the consumer price index or another measure is the best indicator of Americans’ economic circumstances is debatable. But no economic factor alone predicts U.S. election results particularly well.
Inflation probably is hurting the Democrats this year. But it’s likely that Democrats would be poised to lose the House even if inflation weren’t high — because the party in the White House almost always loses the House.
Third, much of the intra-Democratic Party debate about the role of economic policy and rhetoric in electoral politics is really a coded conversation about gender, race and policy. Many Democratic-aligned strategists and officials (allies of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont tend to hold this view in particular) want the party to embrace more economic populism and in some ways de-emphasize issues such as abortion and race. This is a policy view, but knowing that the broader Democratic Party is more united around beating Republicans than any set of policies, this bloc uses election narratives to push its policy stances.
So anytime Democrats are struggling politically, this bloc says the party isn’t talking about economic policy enough. Post-election, if Democrats lose, they will argue Democrats lost because they didn’t talk about the economy enough. If Democrats win, they will claim it is because Democrats focused the right amount on the economy.
There is another bloc in the party, including many close to Biden, who are wary of Democrats focusing on issues such as abortion and race but for different reasons. Their argument, although rarely stated directly in public, is that Democrats are losing elections because the majority of White American voters, particularly White men, are backing Republicans. Therefore, the party must find issues that center White men (economics) or at least ones that don’t leave them feeling de-centered (abortion, race.). This argument can also basically be used anytime, since Democrats almost always lose the White vote. Even after Democrats won the House, Senate and presidency in 2020, many Biden-aligned people in the party argued Democrats would have carried more districts and states but for the emergence of the “defund the police” movement.
In reality, it’s not clear whether Democrats would win more White voters or White male voters if they talked about the economy in a certain way or if they downplayed issues such as abortion. A campaign is not a one-sided conversation. Even if Democrats don’t campaign on issues such as abortion, crime and policing in ways that annoy some voters (or avoid those issues completely), Republicans can still make them the center of the campaign, as they are doing right now in key races in New York, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
What’s annoying about these arguments (but also useful for those making them) is that the notion that a political party will do better in elections if it talks about the economy “more” or in a certain way is almost impossible to measure or prove. If some pundit or strategist had written in June that Democrats would keep their House majority if they ran 80 percent of their campaign commercials on economic issues and Biden gave a weekly speech on manufacturing, he could write, “Democrats didn’t talk about the economy enough,” with an actual, specific metric that the party didn’t hit. I suspect this person doesn’t exist.
Fourth, the polls and focus groups in which Americans say the economy or jobs is their most important issue are not capturing what’s really driving voting decisions. In virtually every poll, at least 30 percent of voters say the economy is the most important issue in this year’s elections. The economy is the most cited issue, as it was in many prior election cycles.
But it’s very unlikely that 30 percent of voters are actually choosing candidates based on economic conditions alone. The overwhelming majority of voters (80 to 90 percent) will likely support whatever party they usually align with. So while these voters might say the economy is their important policy issue, what is actually driving their votes is partisanship.
It’s easy to reconcile party-line voting with Americans saying the economy is their most important issue, because partisan voters assess the economy more favorably when their party is in the White House.
Even swing voters might be overemphasizing the economy’s role in their votes. Asking people why they are voting for a particular candidate, as researchers do in polling and focus groups, is fraught. Voters sometimes lie about their motivations— and sometimes are not fully conscious of them.
For example, if you are a Pennsylvania voter who is uncomfortable voting for Democratic Senate nominee John Fetterman because his stroke has made it harder for him to speak in public, you could say that to a pollster or in a focus group. But you might not want to seem unsympathetic about Fetterman’s health. So you might just fib and say you are voting for Republican Mehmet Oz because inflation is too high.
Fifth, American elections are complicated because so many things, including the quality of the candidates, are at play. “Lots of factors shape the election, including the economy” is way more accurate than “It’s the economy, stupid.”
Clinton’s staffers back in 1992 seemed to know this, too. The sign in the campaign’s headquarters included two other mantras that have been somewhat forgotten in the three decades since: “Change vs. more of the same” and “Don’t forget health care.”
I don’t like to call anyone or anything stupid. But let’s say “the economy, stupid,” as a singular explanation for American elections is a misguided view that has persisted 30 years too long and should be retired"