As Always, Voters Say, “It’s the Economy, Stupid”… But What Are They Really Telling Us?

After initially declaring last Tuesday night that the 2009 off-year elections were a negative referendum on President Obama, the DC punditry, especially the cable news channels, took a look at the actual election results and their own exit poll data, reversed field, and decided that the day’s events were not really all about Barack.  In fact, because the returns contained something to please almost everyone—Republican gubernatorial victories in Virginia and New Jersey and Democratic congressional wins in upstate New York and northern California—there was little consensus within the media and among politicians about the partisan implications of the day’s results.

But there was one common thread running through the returns: the state of the economy was decisive in the choices of many voters. Pluralities told exit poll interviewers in Virginia (47%), New Jersey (32%) and New York City (40%) that “the economy and jobs” was the single most important issue shaping their ballot preferences in this year’s elections. If the 2009 elections had any meaning at all it was to warn Washington that it must focus on the economy, especially employment, and take decisive and affirmative steps to deal with both the causes and ravages of the greatest economic downturn in the U.S. since the Great Depression, doing so in a way that clearly puts the needs of middle class and working Americans above the concerns of financial elites. 

All recent national polls confirm the economic concerns of Virginia, New Jersey, and New York City voters. An October Pew survey shows that virtually everyone (91%) rates the current state of the economy as only fair or poor, with a decisive plurality (48%) saying it is poor. ( A survey conducted in the same time frame for the Wall Street Journal by Democrat Peter Hart and Republican Bill McInturff indicates that 80% of Americans are at least somewhat dissatisfied with the current state of the U.S. economy; half (49%) are very dissatisfied. Most also believe that the economy still has a ways to go before it hits bottom (58%). There is even greater pessimism about jobs: about two-thirds (63%) believe that the level of unemployment will drop even further before it rebounds. Moreover, while some point to the recent jump in stock prices as an indication that hard times are ending, a solid majority (64%) say that the gains in the Dow Jones average have little effect on their own economic well-being.

The Pew study also demonstrates the major impact that the recession has had on individual Americans and their families. A majority (60%) rated their own financial situation as only fair or poor. Just 38% said their personal finances were in excellent or good shape. These perceptions are based primarily on a widespread concern with employment. Nearly half (42%) indicated that there has been a time during the past year when they or someone else in their household was unemployed and eight in ten believe that jobs are difficult to find in their community. The problem was particularly acute among young members of the Millennial Generation (18-27 year olds), 61% of whom said that they or someone close to them was jobless recently.  As a result, a clear plurality (46%) says that the “job situation” rather than rising prices (27%), problems in the financial markets (14%) and declining real estate values (7%) is their major economic worry.
While many on the conservative side of the political spectrum and Republican side of the congressional aisle favor a hands-off approach, most Americans believe decisive federal government action is needed to restore economic vitality and produce jobs. According to the Wall Street Journal poll, 63% believe that the government has either done the right amount or not enough to improve economic conditions. A plurality (36%), in fact, would like to see the government take even bolder steps. Only 30% feel that the government has been too involved in the economy.

One thing that most Americans believe would strengthen the economy and prevent future downturns is additional regulation of the financial institutions that caused the recession. A large majority (70%) perceives that the government has made little or no progress in fixing the financial practices that produced the crisis. That failure clearly did not stem from public resistance to reform. According to Pew, a majority (54%) says that increased government regulation of major financial companies is a good idea, with two-thirds of those agreeing strongly. Only 38% believe that greater regulation of the financial industry is a bad idea.

Most also believe the government should invest in and rebuild the country’s infrastructure. A majority (70%) agrees that “the government spending billions on roads, bridges, and other public works projects” has been good for the economy. Support for infrastructure spending is widespread in all demographics and across party lines. This approach seems to be a “no-brainer” that will enhance short-term employment among those who are most severely affected by the recession and long-term economic growth.

The American people are hurting. They have asked their government to act decisively on their behalf. The only remaining question is whether the Obama administration and congressional Democrats have the will to do so. If they do not, meaningful interpretations of the 2010 and 2012 elections will not be nearly as hard to find as they were this year.

Michael D. Hais is an NDN Fellow and co-author, with Morley Winograd, of Millennial Makeover: MySpace, You Tube, and the Future of American Politics, named one of the ten favorite books of 2008 by the New York Times.