Unemployment drops below 6 percent: Can it help Democrats?

This last snapshot of the job market before midterm elections marks the first time the unemployment rate has dropped below 6 percent since 2008. But the total share of Americans who have jobs has recovered only modestly.

Seth Perlman/AP
Students attend The Foot in the Door Career Fair at the University of Illinois in Springfield, Ill., on Sept 25, 2014. On Friday, the US Labor Department released employment data that shows that the economy created 248,000 new jobs in September.

A better-than-expected report on the US job market Friday could give a modest to lift to struggling Democrats, one month before an election that could flip control of the Senate to Republicans. 

The economy created a robust 248,000 jobs in September and the official unemployment rate fell to 5.9 percent from 6.1 percent the month before, the Labor Department reported.

That’s welcome news for US workers, and in political terms, such signs of economic improvement tend to buoy the party that controls the White House.

But despite a string of solid job reports in recent months, the state of the economy is, at best, providing modest support to Democrats in key races. Far from assuring that Democrats can retain their narrow control of the Senate, the improving job market is simply helping them to stay in the election game.

Republicans need a net gain of six Senate seats to take charge.

President Obama, seeking to help his party, is doing his best to capitalize on the job market’s improvement.

“When I took office, businesses were laying off 800,000 Americans a month. Today, our businesses are hiring 200,000 Americans a month,” Mr. Obama said Thursday, in a speech at Northwestern University near Chicago.

A political challenge, however, is that the economy still isn’t nearly as strong as Americans would like – and the president’s popularity is also suffering from other factors – like handling of foreign policy – that have nothing to do with the economy.

Although unemployment has fallen sharply from its post-recession high of about 10 percent, the total share of Americans who have jobs has recovered only modestly – to 59 percent of adults, down from about 63 percent just before the recession. 

Part of that reflects the demographics of the baby boom, as more Americans are hitting retirement age. But it also reflects an economy where many potential workers aren’t optimistic enough to even look for work. Those on the sidelines aren’t counted in the official unemployment rate.

Wage growth has also been disappointing, barely keeping pace with inflation.

The president acknowledged the challenge in his speech. He said it’s “indisputable that millions of Americans don’t yet feel enough of the benefits of a growing economy where it matters most – and that's in their own lives.”

And the positive tone of the September jobs report (many economists didn’t expect the unemployment rate to drop below 6 percent), doesn’t mean the economy is about to shift into high gear.

Members of the National Association for Business Economics, in a new survey, expect the annualized pace of economic growth to come in at 3 percent for the remainder of 2014 and 2.9 percent for 2015, after notching 3.1 percent last year.

All that hints at why it’s hard for Democrats to run as the party of economic recovery.

That doesn’t mean gains in the job market are meaningless for the election, though. Democratic incumbents like Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire and Sen. Kay Hagan in North Carolina would probably be having a tougher time if it weren’t for lower-than-average unemployment (4.4 percent in New Hampshire as of August) or significant improvement (unemployment has fallen in North Carolina from 8.8 percent at the start of 2013 to 6.8 percent in August).

In both those states, the Democrats have an edge in recent polls.

The same dynamics also may be supporting Democrats who are behind in the polls – helping to keep their hopes alive in places like Arkansas, even though the political terrain favors Republicans.

But, as important as the economy is – it’s ranked by Americans at the top of their priority list – other themes, from national security to social issues, are also taking a high profile in tight races.

Republican Joni Ernst has taken the lead against Democrat Bruce Braley for Iowa’s open Senate seat, for example, even though unemployment there is just 4.5 percent and the seat has been held until now by Democrat Tom Harkin.

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