The recent polls showing a dead-heat race between Obama and McCain also indicate that economic issues are the single most important concern for voters, by far. And few people seem to feel that either candidate is doing much to address the underlying problems.
McCain has sidestepped the issue by attacking Obama and calling for more off-shore drilling as a panacea for higher gas and energy prices. It isn't, but it has the virtue of simplicity, and higher gas costs are something almost all Americans -- except those like me and my 8 million neighbors who live in New York City -- can relate to. Obama has had a more nuanced approach and a very specific tax plan, but to date, his agenda hasn't fully connected on a national level.
The problem is that while most Americans say that they have economic concerns, those concerns aren't at the end of the day the same. We may share economic anxiety, but the economic realities in suburban Virginia or Houston are worlds apart from the situation in greater Detroit, Las Vegas, swaths of southern Florida, or large parts of the central and southern California. In spite of overall weakness in economic data, some parts of the country are doing fine, and others are in a horrendous downturn that is getting deeper by the week.
And the reasons for the strength or weakness aren't the same. Michigan and Ohio are experiencing deep recession because of the continued and sharp collapse of the US auto industry, especially in the face of the slack demand for SUVs. Florida is suffering from the bottoming of residential real estate, while greater Las Vegas is in a funk because of both decreasing casino revenues and over-development both commercial and residential. Meanwhile, Houston is booming because of oil prices, as it much of southern Texas, Silicon Valley is doing just fine graced with high-tech revenues, and Omaha is buoyed by a series of services industries that have been expanding.
The huge variability between different states makes it very hard for any candidate to run on a coherent economic platform that has national appeal. The national dialogue assumes that we are all in the same boat, but we're not. Geographic differences mean everything, not to mention income differences. The candidates can talk economy, but they are both left trying to sustain a fiction of national economy when none really exists.
The other problem is that while everyone may focus on the economy, it is difficult to get people passionate about economic issues -- unless there is a crime or a crisis that is simple and clear. The disintegration of Fannie and Freddie may have serious ramifications for the housing market writ large, but try explaining what they do in simple language that has visceral appeal. You can't. Most of the issues are wonky in nature and just don't play well on the campaign trail.
For now, it's an odd campaign season, because the issue that voters are most focused on means so many different things even though it's all lumped under "the economy." An answer in one state or region isn't likely to play so well in another, and voters may continue to feel as if no one is actually addressing their needs. The greatest common denominator of national campaigning is for now compounding the ennui, rather than generating enthusiasm, because the one-size-fits-all messaging isn't working.
The conventions, with all their pomp and staged-managed circumstance, will refocus attention on the campaigns, as will the fall sprint. But in order to connect more widely, each candidate has to be mindful of the differences even as they seek to create a national message. The one who squares that circle will win.