Is the Democrats’ issue really Obamacare, or the economy?

We’ve speculated plenty about how political dramas like the shutdown and Obamacare could impact 2014. The parties seem to think they'll be big, and the Republicans certainly look like they’re gearing up to run hard against Obamacare, again, in House and Senate races. 

But I was reminded, as the jobs numbers came in, that voters always say the economy is their top concern. (They did in 2012; in 2010; in ‘08…) That's nuanced because big tilts like the ones we've watched this fall do invariably get blended into party images, and those matter. But if you had to wager based on history, would you bet the biggest factor for next year is Obamacare; or the budget… or simply whether or not people think the economy is improving?

So far, they haven't. This is a look at what people have said about the economy recently across swing House districts – those are districts that have fairly even partisan within +/- 5 points – in our most recent CBS News polls for October and November combined. Leave aside the national numbers for a second; these are the kinds of places it'll matter most. In these districts the percent that says the economy is getting worse has far outnumbered the percent that says getting better, and the percent that says just staying the same. 

chart 1 pie.JPG
 That’s a little tougher outlook in close districts than across the nation as a whole from the latest poll, where 41 percent said it was staying the same and 33 percent said worse. But in either case, only about one-quarter thought it was getting better. 

To be fair, there is always a partisan component to this. Voters whose party is in power tend to be more upbeat about national metrics; those out of power more negative, whatever the numbers. This table shows how the economy is seen in high-Republican districts – where there are of course more Republicans, and more people say it is worse – and in high-Democratic districts, where the economy is rated more favorably.  But the swing districts, many of which will determine control next year, have not shared the same outlook as the Democratic ones. 

chart 2 d-r.jpg
 

Democrats will need those perceptions to turn around if they’re going to make any run at the House. (And for context, the Republicans start with a large structural edge to keep House control, anyway.) The latest unemployment figures show a drop, and historically we might expect views on the overall economy to improve if that trend continues. But that's an if, and a key - probably, the key - measure to watch in the coming months.

When we look at people nationally, we always want to check with the independents – they don’t always swing between the parties, but Democrats will need a lot of them to have any shot at all. Independents nationally haven't been saying the economy is getting better. The chart shows independents from the last three CBS News polls.

chart indeps time.jpg

Even national Democrats have not been overly positive. Half of them were seeing improvement toward the end of the summer. That outlook did not continue.

chart 3 dems time.jpg

In 2012, House voters who said the economy was their top issue voted marginally Republican. Those who said it was getting worse overwhelmingly so, 86 to 11, and “staying same” went Republican by double digits.The state of the economy ought not be thought of as simply determining an election and surely not this far out. But it will be critical. Fixing a crashing website is one thing, an economy, another. 

The confounding factor in all this is, as in any year of divided government, that it isn’t entirely clear how blame or credit would get dispersed. That's where campaign messages could matter most. Republicans hold the House, which is technically what’s on the ballot, but Democrats would conventionally be thought of as “in power” because they control the White House. 

If things improve, there will be a race to claim credit, of course, Republicans likely pointing to their deficit- cutting push and Democrats, for the president's policies. If views worsen, it's likely we see the parties once again frame the economic debate again in that unprovable negative, arguing over which of them is supposedly holding things back. In either case, you should bet it will be central, or at least that voters will tell us it should be.

  • Anthony Salvanto On Twitter»

    Anthony Salvanto is CBS News elections director

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