The Correlation Between Unemployment And The Election Is An Illusion

by evanmcmurry

Yesterday, I discussed Jennifer Rubin’s indictment of the “media,” however she defines it, for focusing on the Bain attacks rather than the state of the economy. Rubin’s theory was that the 8.2% unemployment rate—which looks to be here to stay for a while—was 100% for sure going to tank Obama’s reelection chances, so the media was being irresponsible by actually vetting Obama’s opponent, as Romney is going to win no matter what so who cares. The problem with this is that we’ve had 8.1-8.2% unemployment for a while now, and it hasn’t impacted Obama’s numbers at all. He remains 2-3 points ahead of Romney in national polls, and 3-6 points ahead in swing states. Rubin was so convinced of a correlation between unemployment and a defeated incumbent that she wanted the media to report it even though it hadn’t shown up yet. I called that crazy.

Jamelle Bouie at the Prospect goes me one further, using data from Nate Silver that the correlation itself may be an illusion:

Pace almost all election coverage, unemployment doesn’t actually tell you much about the final outcome of an election…There’s almost no relationship between the unemployment rate on Election Day and the fate of the candidates. It’s fun trivia to note that Obama is running with the highest unemployment rate since 1936, but alone, it doesn’t say anything about Obama’s position with the electorate.

(He has a chart, so if you’re a visual learner click over. )

So what can haz correlation?

By contrast, there is a significant relationship between final election outcomes and either GDP growth or growth in personal income. Indeed, if you’re trying to explain Obama’s continued strength in the polls—despite a sluggish economy—look no further than the fact that growth is positive on both counts. This isn’t to say that it’s good—the economy is predicted to have grown by 1.3 percent in the second quarter, and income is up by only 0.3 percent—but that it’s unusual for incumbents to lose when there’s any growth at all.

This really does explain it all. High unemployment is often coincident with lack of growth, and is a more visible symptom of a stagnant economy, so it’s no wonder that it’s been the focus of warnings for Obama. But our economy is growing. It’s not growing as quickly or as strongly as we want it to, which is why Obama’s not running away with the election, but if you want an explanation as to why he’s still ahead of Generic Candidate R, look no further than the fact that the economy is in forward motion.

Bouie and Silver both think Romney is overreacting to the Bain attacks, as Romney’s national polling numbers haven’t moved in the last three months either. I’d disagree with this. Romney’s behind, not just in national polling numbers, but in favorability ratings, in swing states, in whom voters trust, etc. Stagnation for Romney is defeat. All the Bain attacks need to do is keep him where he’s at, which is precisely what they’re doing.