When an election is just two months away, it’s not unusual for the state of the economy – as measured by the Labor Department’s monthly job numbers – to be taken as an important straw in the wind.
This time around, though, headlines stating that the economy gained just 142,000 jobs in August, well below forecasters' expectations, may not represent much of a setback for Democrats seeking to retain control of the Senate.
Yes, the headline is negative about the economy – and on balance, that stands to hurt the congressional-election chances of the party controlling the White House.
But several forces serve to play down the opportunity for Republicans to gain momentum on a message that Democrats have mismanaged the economy.
Polling evidence suggests the economy isn’t as big a factor in this election as it was in the past few cycles. It’s still the top priority, but at a lower level of intensity. The share of Americans mentioning an economic issue as the nation’s most important problem has dropped from 86 percent early in 2009 to 38 percent this August, according to Gallup. That leaves more room for other factors – local issues, perceptions of personal character – to be decisive.
Also, the American electorate is fairly hardened in its views of the political parties and their economic performance. Most people who will turn out for Nov. 4 midterm elections essentially know which party they’ll be voting for.
The role of swing voters is limited. Yes, it’s possible that some Senate races may hinge on which way the undecided voters break, not just on which party can turn out more of its solid base. But even there, political independents were hardly feeling sanguine about the economy before Friday. So it’s far from clear that a disappointing month for jobs gives Republicans new leverage against Democrats.
In short, the weaknesses of the economy are now an old and familiar story for members of both parties and those in between.
“Today we learned the U.S. labor force shrank by 64k ... in August and that we have the worst labor force participation rate in decades,” Ed Gillespie, a Republican seeking a Virginia seat in the US Senate, said on Twitter Friday morning.
He was reminding his followers of longstanding trends.
On the positive side of the economy, the Obama administration and Democrats can point to a falling unemployment rate (to 6.1 percent of the labor force in August) and steady growth in jobs (“54 straight months of job growth,” the White House said in a statement Friday analyzing the Labor Department numbers).
But the difficulties are also familiar: Lots of people have given up looking for jobs, and wages for many are barely matching inflation – or even falling short.
To some extent, the labor force is shrinking because more baby boomers are hitting retirement age, but many economists say an important factor in the decline is also cyclical – people who are discouraged now but who might start looking for work again, if the job market strengthens.
“The share of the population with a job, which plunged to its lowest levels since the early 1980s, has [since the recession] risen only modestly even though we’re now more than five years into the recovery. The share of the labor force that’s working fewer hours than it would like remains high, as does long-term unemployment,” writes Chad Stone, an economist at the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington.
If you’re in a state with a tight Senate race, all this might come up in TV ads and debates during the next few weeks.
Many Republican candidates argue that pro-growth tax reform and efforts to thin the weeds of unnecessary regulation can boost job growth and incomes.
In close Senate races, Democrats are finding their own voice on the economy. In North Carolina, incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan is touting herself as a moderate determined to revive business confidence, while pointing to Republican entitlement-reform plans as harmful to middle-class pocketbooks.
But this is just one piece of the congressional midterm campaign, not the dominant factor.
In a recent debate between Senator Hagan and Republican candidate Thom Tillis, issues like the Middle East, immigration, and veterans’ health care captured the spotlight.
Bottom line: The race for control of the Senate is still up for grabs, and it may not be voters' view of the economy that decides it.