Economic Concerns Recall Past Campaigns

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This column was written by CBS News director of surveys Kathy Frankovic.

The latest polls - those of CBS News as well as those of other organizations - show enormous and growing concerns about the nation's economy. Eighty one percent say the country is headed in the wrong direction - the highest percentage in the 25 years that CBS News has been asking the question. More than three in four say the economy is in bad condition, and the same percentage think things in the U.S. are worse than they were five years ago.

The president's 28 percent overall approval rating is only one percentage-point above his lowest ever rating in our poll; other recent polls have reported the same 28 percent approval. And when it comes to the economy, assessment of the President's performance is at an all-time low. Only 21 percent approve of how he is handling it, and 71 percent disapprove.

Those are scary numbers. Especially because the current assessments of the president and the economy are eerily reminiscent of April polls from other election years, when the state of the economy was the major issue. In the April 1992 CBS News/New York Times Poll, just 21 percent approved of the way George H.W. Bush ("Bush 41") was handling the economy, and 73 percent disapproved. In April 1980, Jimmy Carter's approval rating for handling the economy was also only 21 percent, with 71 percent disapproving. Eventually, both Bush 41's and Carter's economic ratings would sink even lower - as low as 18 percent in the fall of those years. The public's worries about the economy in 1992 and 1980 are good examples of what can happen to a President and a party when things turn bad.

In 1992, the U.S. was in a recession, and most Americans knew it. The unemployment rate was over 7 percent. In 1980, both unemployment and inflation were high - 7 percent unemployment and 12.5 percent inflation! Today, even though both rates are lower, economists are concerned that the U.S. may be heading into recession. Hit with higher gas prices and a housing downturn, two out of three Americans already believe a recession is here.

In 1980, Americans had a second issue with Jimmy Carter: his handling of the seizure of the American Embassy in Teheran (Iran) and the holding of American hostages. In January 1980, foreign policy outpaced the economy as the public's perceived most important problem. But even though the hostages would not return for a year, Americans soon focused on the economy as their biggest concern.

This year, as in 1980, the war in Iraq has been eclipsed by economic concerns. In the last CBS News/New York Times poll, 37 percent cited the economy as their biggest worry, a figure that has been increasing in the last few months. Just 15 percent named Iraq.

The economy was even more dominant in those other election years. By mid-1992, more than half of people polled volunteered it as the country's most important problem, and by late 1980, more than two in three Americans cited it. Americans did not give the Presidents any leeway on the issue: in 1992, 59 percent said they thought a president could "do a lot" about the condition of the economy.

Something else set those two years apart from today. In each year, the incumbent president made an unsuccessful attempt at re-election. This year, the presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain, has done much to try and separate himself from George W. Bush (and many voters remember him as the President's 2000 opponent).

However, McCain still represents the incumbent's party, and now supports two Administration policies he originally criticized - the Bush tax cuts and the Iraq war. Many Republican primary voters who are happy with the Bush Administration voted for McCain this year. In New Hampshire, he captured 40 percent of primary voters who were dissatisfied with the President, but also managed to win 32 percent of those who were satisfied. McCain did as well with voters who said the economy was the most important issue in their vote as he did with those who said the war in Iraq or terrorism was most important. In the big Super Tuesday states, like California, McCain ran equally well no matter how voters felt about the Administration.

The economy always matters when it has problems. The question this year is how it will affect the fall campaign. We should be closer to understanding that after the late summer political conventions. This election could be like 1992, where long-term Administration weaknesses were on the voters' minds all fall. Once Bill Clinton managed to move to the front following Ross Perot's withdrawal during the Democratic Convention, he never really lost ground. Predicting Democratic victory, thereafter, was easy.

But this election could be more like 1980, where the outcome wasn't apparent until the end, and most pollsters missed it. The close race between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter that many pollsters predicted in their final polls changed into a Reagan landslide in the last three days of the campaign. This year, with no incumbent to blame, the impact of the economy - the extent to which it will make the key difference in the outcome - is yet to be seen.
By Kathy Frankovic