Gas prices are down, the stock market is at a record high and 60 percent of Americans say the economy is in good shape. So why are Republicans in so much trouble?
I've been asked this in the past week by several (mostly rich) Democrats and Republicans, so I picked the brains of a number of pollsters. Kathy Frankovic, director of surveys for CBS News, pointed to the finding in the conducted Oct. 5 to 8, which said that despite the increase in the number of people saying the economy was in good shape, they were not optimistic about the future. Only 19 percent said the economy was getting better, and by a 51 percent to 36 percent margin people picked the Democrats over the Republicans as the party which would ensure a good economy.
Democratic pollster Geoff Garin says "the only economic statistics that matter right now are flat incomes and still more than a majority of voters feel they are falling behind economically. New jobs aren't as good as the jobs we lost and any gains aren't trickling down to the middle class. And voters feel that the economic outlook is glum for the next generation."
In fact, the recent CBS/Times poll found that 46 percent said they were making just enough to get by and another 17 percent said that they weren't making enough to pay their bills. Only a third of Americans said they had more than enough to get by.
Nonpartisan congressional election analyst Charlie Cook reads the polls the same way and says that Iraq and a feeling that the Republicans have been in power too long are dominating the economy as an issue this year, and that many Americans feel they are working harder and harder but not getting ahead.
But what about gas prices? Republican pollster David Winston has long thought they were a big source of Republican woes and if they came down Republicans would have an easier time of it. Cook feels gas prices seem to have "hurt Republicans when they were going up and helped when they were going down," but that the phenomenon was "distinct from a broader economic concern that the Republicans were favoring the other economy that has been doing so well." Democratic pollster Diane Feldman took it a step further. Her research has found that many voters "think the Republicans manipulate gas prices." Both she and Cook say the market is irrelevant to most voters.
In an important book published this fall, "Applebee's America," the authors, Republican pollster Matthew Dowd, Democratic strategist Doug Sosnik and former AP political writer Ron Fournier, throw cold water on the "Economy Drives the Vote" theory. In a chapter entitled "Values Trump the Economy," they argue that people vote with their hearts not their heads and are hungry for a "gut value connection" with political leaders. Voters are searching for community and authenticity, and leaders who are able to persuade them that they care about voters and convince them that "we are all in this together" will be successful. On a panel in Washington last week, Fournier said that Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm was pulling ahead in the polls despite the terrible economy in her state because she made that connection on values.
"Applebee's America" is a fascinating book and uses a huge amount of sophisticated polling and marketing techniques to demonstrate the thesis that values and culture beat issues and policies. However, several pollsters have argued that this is a false distinction. Geoff Garin contends that "issues have to be expressed in a language of values – but values without issues lose the transaction people look for in candidates, i.e., how are you going to make my life better."
The Bush administration and Republican candidates are still hoping that the good economic indicators, falling gas prices and issues like taxes and government spending will get through to voters in the final days of the campaign. But time is running out, and so far the voters' heads and hearts have been focusing on other issues and different solutions.