10/10/2014 09:42 am ET Updated Dec 10, 2014

It's Still the Economy, Stupid!


A month before the November 4 mid-term elections, the competition for control of the Senate is neck-and-neck. The improving U.S. economy hasn't increased Democratic prospects. What explains this?

On October 3 President Obama touted a milestone, the U.S. 5.9 percent unemployment rate. Under the Obama administration, the economy has experienced 55 months of job growth and added 10.3 million private sector jobs. Some experts predict that the U.S. will reach full employment by late 2016.

Nonetheless, U.S. voters aren't convinced. The October 1 AP-GfK poll found that 92 percent of likely voters called the economy, "an extremely or very important issue." Only 38 percent of likely voters described the economy as good. When asked which Party would do the best job handling the economy, 36 percent said Republicans versus 31 percent supporting Democrats.

In 2012 the Republican economic message was: "Where are the jobs?" In 2014 they've struggled to find a message other than: "Blame Obama." When asked about what seemed good to be economic good news, the 5.9 percent unemployment rate, House Speaker John Boehner quipped, "Instead of trying to convince Americans that things are great, Washington Democrats ought to show they're serious about helping middle-class families get ahead, not just get by." On October 2nd Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Preibus unveiled 11 principles "for American renewal." The GOP economic principle was: "Start growing America's economy instead of Washington's economy so that working Americans see better wages and more opportunity."

Three reasons explain why Democrats have had difficulty gaining traction with a positive economic message.

1. Republicans and Democrats listen to different news sources. A recent Public Policy poll found that 69 percent of Republicans trusted Fox News. Democrats get their news from many other sources with PBS the favorite.

As a result, Democrats and Republicans interpret economic news differently. A recent Pew Research Poll showed that 46 percent of Republicans thought the "job news" was "mostly bad" compared with 26 percent of Democrats and 31 percent of Independents.

2. The U.S. economy is complex. While there has been an overall improvement, problems persist. On October 3, President Obama said, "Our broader economy in the aggregate has come a long way, but the gains of the recovery aren't yet broadly shared."

During this recovery there's been a hollowing out of the middle class; the erosion of decent middle-class jobs. Most of the recovery proceeds went to the top one percent. This chart shows that during the Obama recovery (2009-present) average income growth was 6 percent. But the top 1 percent experienced income growth of 31.4 percent and the bottom 99 percent had a pitiful .4 percent. A recent study by the Center For American Progress found that

for a typical median income married couple with two children, the collective cost of basic pillars of middle class security -- including child care, higher education, health care, housing, and retirement -rose by an estimated $10,600 between 2000 and 2012... but [the family] earned less than one percent more.

The hollowing out of the middle class has muddied the 2014 Democratic message. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne observed

The unemployment rate is way down, but it's still not low enough to create rapid and widespread wage growth... This tension is far more difficult for Democrats to deal with than it would be for Republicans, were they presiding over exactly the same recovery. Democrats... have made their living as the party that lifts up the many and not just the privileged few.

3. The continuing economic problems impact a critical block of voters. The 2014 Pew Research Center political typology poll breaks the American political electorate into eight groups, four on the right and four on the left. The midterm problem for Democrats is that they first have to get their base out to vote: Solid Liberals (21 percent), Next Generation Left (11 percent), and Faith and Family Left (12 percent). But this is only 44 percent of the probable electorate. To prevail in November, Democrats have to win back the Hard-Pressed Skeptics (9 percent) who voted for Obama in 2012 but are disillusioned in 2014.

The lingering economic problems bedevil Hard-Pressed Skeptics: "Only about a third of Hard-Pressed Skeptics (32 percent) say they work-full-time." More than any other group, 67 percent of Hard-Pressed skeptics say, "I often don't have enough enough to make ends meet."

As a result, Hard-Pressed Skeptics have mixed political allegiance, "51% plan to vote for the Democrat in their congressional district, while 37% plan to vote Republican."

In an October 2 speech, President Obama touted his plans for job training, a minimum wage increase, infrastructure investment, and other measures to promote wage increases. There's still time for Democrats to make the case that they're the party that cares about all the people while Republicans care only about the one percent. Focus on the economy, stupid!