In politics, perception and reality can be two very different things. And when it comes to jobs and the economy, this is as true today in the key presidential battleground states as was the famed, and factually inaccurate, “missile gap” of the 1960 election.
Consider the facts. The economy is really improving. At the national level unemployment is down to 5.6 percent from 6.3 percent one year ago. The economy is creating jobs at a steady rate and economists predict solid job creation through the end of this year.
With specific political significance, in the 19 battleground states where we just finished surveying 1,000 likely voters the economy is improving too. Between January and May of this year according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, seasonally adjusted, non-farm jobs in these states (AZ, AR, CO, FL, IA, LA, ME, MI, MN, MO, NV, NH, NM, OH, OR, PA, WA, WV, WI) increased by 369,700, bringing total employment in these states from 47,844,100 to 48,213,800. Seventeen of these 19 states experienced job gains–only Louisiana (-1,400) and West Virginia (-1,200) saw job losses over this period.
Job growth in these states was positive, but unfortunately uneven. For example, Ohio, which has more that five million workers, gained a near invisible 7,000 jobs during this period. Conversely, its neighbor Pennsylvania gained an additional 44,100 jobs while Florida added 74,700 jobs.
But, despite the hard data on jobs creation, the voters aren’t yet buying it. Therein lays the “gap” and the political challenge.
When we asked likely voters in these key battleground states if “the number of jobs is increasing, decreasing, or staying about the same” in the area “where you live,” we found that only 26 percent said jobs were increasing and 33 percent said the number of jobs were staying the same. Most troubling was that 36 percent–a plurality–said jobs were decreasing. That one data point represents a fundamental and very crucial “disconnect” between economic reality and voters’ perception in these key states.
The implications of this data for the Bush campaign could be staggering. Not surprisingly, in a highly partisan and polarized environment, a plurality (43 percent) of Bush voters say jobs are increasing in their area, while conversely, a majority (56 percent) of Kerry voters say jobs are decreasing. The problem for the Bush campaign is that undecided voters in these key states are far more likely to believe that jobs are decreasing (33 percent) than increasing (20 percent).
Equally problematic is that perceptions of job growth are the most negative in the key industrial battleground states of Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. In these states 47 percent say jobs are decreasing and only 21 percent say jobs are increasing. Not surprising, President Bush leads by a razor-thin two-percent margin in these states.
By comparison, likely voters in the “New West” battleground states of Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico, are relatively positive about job growth. Thirty-eight percent say jobs in their area are increasing and 23 percent say jobs are decreasing. Here President Bush leads Sen. Kerry 51 percent to 40 percent. The correlation is unmistakable–the more positive the perception of job growth the better President Bush performs against Sen. Kerry.
But while the hard jobs data favors the Bush team, the current perceptions place them in a race against time. There are only four more jobs reports left before the election; handing the Bush team a tight timetable in which to change perceptions on this issue. There is no question that this perception “gap” needs to be closed to bolster the president’s standing in these key states.
The Kerry team, in contrast, is hoping it can keep as many voters as possible on board the Pessimism Express to the November elections. They can’t attack the current job-growth numbers, but they clearly will try to muddy the waters by talking down the economy and talking up jobs lost since January 2001. And this makes the rhetoric over the economy a contest between job losses of the past and job growth of the future. Who wins this battle in the battleground states will likely win the election.
–Tony Fabrizio served as chief pollster in Sen. Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign. His firm has worked for many U.S. senators, congressmen, and statewide office holders. It also works domestically and internationally for Fortune 500 companies.