Is it too late for the economy to save the Democrats?

Poll stories love to highlight action and movement of numbers ("Plunges to lowest ever!" "Soars to new high!") Sometimes they carry that excited first-blush response to big, sudden events ("Americans react!")

This story, though, is the opposite.

This is about numbers that aren't moving. Opinions are starting to seem immutable, yet they remain the single most important part of the 2014 campaign: this is about views on the economy, and why the fact that they haven't moved matters. A lot.

We learned this week that the nation's GDP didn't really grow in the first quarter, a tough blow for both the recovery and for public perceptions - which often lag economic indicators - as headlines used words like "stagnant" and "slowed to a crawl." On the other hand, Friday's jobs report seemed to offer positive news for jobs, and views on the economy have historically tracked with the unemployment rate.

This all comes as the percent of Americans calling the economy "good" was itself moving sluggishly in our CBS News polls, having barely inched through the mid-thirties since the start of President Obama's second term: it was 32 percent a year and a half ago in January of 2013, and 38 percent in the latest poll a few weeks ago. If you want to understand the dynamics of the 2014 midterms - and why Democrats have their work cut out this year - those are still key numbers to look at. Moreover, the chart below breaks out those who say things are very good and only "somewhat" good; showing that even the "good" rating is pretty tepid.*

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This is helping shape the 2014 dialogue because it is limiting the Democrats' campaign themes. These economy views are well off their post-crash, post-2009 lows, but the percent saying "good" remains less than half. So to tout that the economy is back, or to seek credit for that, could risk sounding discordant when a majority simply doesn't agree - or, at least, it doesn't agree things have rebounded enough to be labeled good, which is probably the same thing for all practical purposes. So it's no surprise that Democrats' messaging, of late, is centering on economic-related issues (since voters always say the economy is important) such as equal pay and minimum wage, but are less about trumpeting any status of the broader economy. At least, thus far.**

It gets trickier, though, if we examine this economic measure more closely. You might think that asking about the state of the economy would prompt voters to distill items like unemployment rates or stock indexes, or even how well they themselves are doing; the "economy," after all, is a very broad concept.

But as the Pew Center has been documenting for a while, and as we can see here in our own data too, voters' economic evaluations don't seem entirely objective anymore. They're shaped by partisanship like so many other issues today. It's probably more precise to say Democrats' 2014 fortunes could be limited by Independents, specifically, thinking things are bad - and the fact that Independents don't seem to be moving on this.

Here's their chart, and you'll see independents haven't budged in their judgments over the last year and a half, either - and that those judgments aren't good. Independents' views were looking ever-so-slightly on the upswing in the latter half of 2013, but that sentiment never achieved liftoff.

salvanto-econ-5-1-chart-4-ind.png

By comparison, here's the chart for Democrats. They give the national economy by far the most positive ratings of all partisan groups - in fact, however low those overall ratings that we saw above, what cheer there is is partly driven by Democrats in the first place. Of late, this number has been rising a bit - good news, at least, for a party trying to rally its base ahead of the campaign. The question will be the extent to which Democrats are willing to go to reward their party, and how much of these responses are positive just to support the home team, too. We'll find out soon enough.

salvanto-econ-5-1-chart-3-dem.png

On the opposite end, Republicans give the economy steadily bad ratings - either very bad or somewhat bad - and that hasn't wavered much at all. Assuming that remains the same, it puts even more onus on what happens to independents, and also puts a ceiling on how far up the overall measure could go.

So a central question for 2014 becomes: how much could the overall measure move? Enough to change the campaign dynamic? The right answer to that, of course, lies in the economy itself. Historically - leaving those partisan effects aside for a moment - the overall measure has been correlated with the national unemployment rate over the last 25 years. For within-year perspective (but not prediction) the chart below shows how much poll-measured views on the economy have ever varied within a calendar year. (The green dots are the average for the year. And the number and timing of polls taken each year varies, which affects these measures, but one still gets a sense of movement.) Some of the years when the situation changed dramatically - like 2008, the financial collapse - show large variation; same with 2001 which saw dropoff, or 1996, in which Americans decided they saw marked improvement and things went up over the year. But usually, it isn't all that much, and more recent years, including the last few, have seen little.

salvanto-econ-5-1-chart-1.png

There's at least one other wrinkle. Many polls show voters nonetheless favor Democrats, in general, more than Republicans on the economic issues. Elections are about choices, of course, but they're also about framing those choices - so we're still likely to see a fight over what's important in these midterms, between whether this year should be a retrospective punishment for the current economy or more about what to do for it next. Republicans would probably prefer the former; Democrats the latter.

And this is no one-way street. Polling also showed that the Republican brand, as recently as the last election, was still feeling the effects of having been in power during the 2008 crash, and that their current Congressional delegation took a hit during the government shutdown in 2013 - all of which might have made it harder for them to use all this negative sentiment about the economy against the Democrats. At the moment, much of their messaging is centered around Obamacare, specifically, which is clearly helping activate the base, a critical part of any midterm. Whether that's enough is another central 2014 question.

But this much is already likely, at least based on history: as in nearly every election, voters will call the economy the number one issue in their vote. And it seems odd, sometimes, to think that we already know how the Fall campaign could shape up, this far off. But those steady trend lines mean the clock is ticking for that part of the dynamic, at least, to change.

*(Yes, visually we could change the y-index here and make the movement in the lines look a little flatter or shakier, but the raw numbers nonetheless define an historically narrow range.)

** One could argue it's generally the direction of the economy that matters not the current status. But that hasn't shifted a lot either lately.

  • Anthony Salvanto On Twitter»

    Anthony Salvanto is CBS News elections director

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