Economic Discontent: The Brass Ring

Today’s turmoil on Wall Street underscores the brass ring of the presidential election – the American public’s deep economic discontent. The candidate who seizes it very likely wins.

Yet both are still grasping.

The reasons cut to their broader pros and cons. Barack Obama leads on empathy, including the economic sort; 74 percent of Americans in our latest ABC/Post poll say he understands the economic difficulties people are having, compared with 53 percent who think John McCain gets it.

But 53 percent still is a majority, if a smaller one, and McCain has other attractions – such as his 17-point lead over Obama in trust to handle “an unexpected major crisis.” That surely seems to describe what the financial markets are facing today.

Balance these out and the two are rated very closely in overall trust to handle the economy – 47 percent pick Obama, 42 percent McCain, a scant 5-point Obama edge. That’s contracted from an 11-point Obama advantage before the conventions and a 17-point Obama lead on the economy in mid-July – a trend in McCain’s favor.

McCain’s pushback on “change” has helped. The shine Americans take to the notion of change depends more than anything on economic change – a break from $4 gas, falling home prices, weak income growth, higher unemployment, a flat job market and, now, the increasing specter of instability and failures in leading financial institutions. Change is the demand – but who’s best to deliver it? McCain with his greater experience overall, or Obama with his advantage in seeming to understand the problems at the kitchen table?

Addressing it is tricky for the candidates, because – contrary to conventional wisdom – economic concerns are fueled by more than self-interest. Sixty-five percent of registered voters actually feel financially secure, though many fewer, 20 percent, feel “very” secure (which it seems fair to see as an essential element of the American dream). In our weekly consumer confidence poll just 45 percent say their own finances are good, 3 points from the record low in 22 years of data. But ratings of the buying climate and the national economy overall are much lower still – just 21 and 14 percent positive, respectively.

That means Americans look not just at how they’re doing personally, but even more at how the country’s doing. And they don’t like what they see; at -47 on its +100 to -100 scale, our Consumer Comfort Index is 4 points from the record low it reached in late May. Addressing these concerns politically means more than connecting with self-interest, but with perceived national needs and interests as well.

In the election, nothing matters more. When we ask registered voters the single most important issue in their choice for president, four in 10 say it’s the economy – a high level of agreement on an open-ended question. It’s been steadily that high since February, after soaring from 11 percent last September. Economic concerns are the main reason more than three-quarters say the country’s seriously off on the wrong track – as many as said so at this time in 1992, when the issue cost George H.W. Bush a second term.

But the equation this time is not so simple. Economic discontent usually damages, above all, the incumbent president – fire the manager, if you will. (Ask George W. Bush how he’s doing.) This year, without an incumbent in the race, the economic question becomes more evaluative: Who gets it, and who can fix it?

If the candidates battle to a standstill, other issues and attributes decide their contest. But if either breaks out on the economy, the election, very likely, breaks open.

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