09/07/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Hope and History on the Issue of Jobs

A McCain campaign "Economic Communications Plan" leaked to the Huffington Post Thursday offers talking points and tactics for portraying Senator Barack Obama as a "job killing machine." That seems like a lot to expect from cheese aisle photo-ops and "family budget roundtables," given the striking historical record of Democrats and Republicans on the issue of jobs.

Over the past 60 years, when Democrats have held the White House unemployment has averaged 4.8%. Under Republicans, the average has been significantly higher, 6.2%. The current rate is 5.7% -- a bit below the historical Republican average, but more than a point higher than when President Bush took office. (The official unemployment rate takes no account of people who have given up looking for work, or of people who have taken substantial pay cuts to stay in the labor force.)

Lower unemployment under Democratic presidents has contributed substantially to greater income growth for American families. Statistical analyses suggest that every percentage point of unemployment reduces real income growth among middle-class families by about 0.6%. Currently, that's about $350 per family per year. And the effects are long-term, unlike the temporary boost in income from a stimulus check. Compounded over an eight-year period, a persistent one-point difference in unemployment is worth about $12,000 to a middle-class family. The dollar values are smaller for working poor families, but in relative terms their incomes are even more sensitive to unemployment. (In contrast, income growth for affluent people is much more sensitive to inflation, a traditional Republican priority.)

The partisan difference in unemployment records persists even after allowing for broader historical trends in the economy. For example, while the unemployment rate has generally been higher since the OPEC oil shocks of the 1970s than it was in the 1950s and 1960s, Democrats have presided over lower unemployment rates in both periods. From 1947 through 1974, the average unemployment rate was 1.1 points higher under Republican presidents than it was under Democrats. From 1975 through 2007, the average unemployment rate was 1.2 points higher under Republican presidents than under Democrats. Unemployment was high under Jimmy Carter, but even higher under Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. It dropped substantially under Bill Clinton, but increased again under the current President Bush.

Of course, past performance is no guarantee of what will happen when the next president takes office. Still, in a contest between a fairly conventional Republican -- McCain -- and a fairly conventional Democrat -- Obama -- on the issue of jobs, betting on the Republican is a vote for hope over history.

Larry M. Bartels directs the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics in Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He is the author of Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age.