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The Issue Mix

Mitt Romney needs to run on more than just the economy.

Apr 30, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 31 • By JEFFREY BELL
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"Republican leaders urge candidate truce on social issues” was the headline in the Washington Examiner. “Republicans retreat on gay marriage” said another in Politico. The accompanying articles, while in some respects tendentious and a bit misleading, are accurate in relaying a mindset widely shared by GOP elites.

Cartoon of Romney and Obama facing off

Such elites believe social issues are mostly harmful to Republican presidential candidates running in general elections. They believe this to be especially true when economic issues have moved to the forefront of voter concern and national debate. Accordingly, they were anxious for the nomination battle, and the candidacy of militant social conservative Rick Santorum, to be over. Now that Santorum has departed the race, they expect that prospective nominee Mitt Romney will be able to direct most of his attention to the economic debate, in which the main hope for Republican victory supposedly resides.

That the economic debate is unavoidable in 2012 is beyond dispute. But not all aspects of it favor Republicans. 

The economic issue as it presents itself this year can be thought of as a five-year narrative divided into three parts: the beginning (2007-09), the middle (2009-11), and the present (late 2011 to Election Day, November 6, 2012).

Only the middle period—the stagnant recovery, accompanied by the unsuccessful Obama stimulus package—can be seen as an unalloyed Republican asset. The height of this phase coincided with the Republican landslide in the 2010 elections. 

The first period—the triggering of the financial crisis followed by the 2007-09 recession—has consistently been regarded by a plurality of voters as a negative for President George W. Bush and for Republicans, who still get most of the blame for the origin of the crisis. Certainly the height of the financial crisis—the announcement of the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers on September 15, 2008—was a decisive turning point in presidential polling in the race between Barack Obama and John McCain. A narrow McCain edge in early September quickly turned into a significant Obama lead he was never to relinquish.

The third and current period has more than six months remaining, and is thus by definition unresolved. But so far it has been characterized by slightly improved private-sector job growth, mild declines in the unemployment rate, a bull market in stocks, and an upward spike in petroleum and gasoline prices. The first three tend to favor Obama and the Democrats, while the fourth is an asset for Republicans.

As to the three favorable current trends, it is in theory possible that voters might give some credit to congressional Republicans, who, though frustrated in their larger aspirations, have had some success in curbing the 2008-10 federal spending spree, as well as heading off Democratic-backed tax increases. But overwhelmingly negative voter sentiments on the performance of Congress in general, and congressional Republicans in particular, suggest this will prove a hard sell. Rightly or wrongly, the president’s relentless campaign to blame congressional Republicans for Washington gridlock appears to have met with considerable success.

So of the three phases of the economic situation that current voters find relevant, one favors the Democrats, one the Republicans, and the third is undecided with perhaps a mild Democratic edge. Assuming recent trends stay more or less intact, this does not necessarily portend a November slam dunk for Republicans. Indeed, a Gallup Poll last week showed 50 percent of Americans have a “great deal/fair amount” of confidence that Obama will do the “right thing for the economy.” Only 42 percent said the same for Romney.

How have Republican presidential nominees done on economic issues in immediate past cycles? Here, too, we find a mixed bag.

In 2008, the network-financed exit poll offered “Economy” as one of five options for the “most important issue” in the voters’ presidential choice. Sixty-three percent chose “Economy,” among whom Obama prevailed over McCain 53-44 percent, a bit better than his overall 53-46 percent popular-vote margin.

In the previous three presidential elections, 1996 through 2004, the network exit poll offered a category it called “Economy/Jobs,” but also included other choices that many if not most would view as economy-centered issues, such as (all three times) “Taxes” and, in 1996, “Federal Deficit.”

On “Economy/Jobs,” Democratic nominees Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and John Kerry prevailed 61-27 percent, 59-37 percent, and 80-18 percent, respectively. In all three elections, around a fifth of voters chose “Economy/Jobs” as their most important issue (21, 18, and 20 percent).

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