Economic conditions don't explain 100% of the variation in election outcomes, of course, but failing to take account of the importance of economic conditions in determining election outcomes in the formulation of election strategy is a mistake:
On Writing about the Economy and Elections, by John Sides: David Paul Kuhn of Real Clear Politics has a piece today taking issue with Ezra Klein and Paul Krugman for over-hyping the role of the economy and elections. Klein, relying in part on a graph I supplied him, wrote:
For decades now, political scientists have been building election models that attempt to predict who will win in November... All they really need to know about is the economy.
Midterm elections, where turnout is crucial, aren’t quite like presidential elections, where the economy is all.
Kuhn objects that the economy isn’t all. ... He quotes two political scientists and election forecasters, James Campbell and Alan Abramowitz, who say that “the economy is a junior partner” and “one factor and not always the most important one,” respectively. Then he describes a series of individual elections that illustrate the lack of complete correspondence between election outcomes and economic performance...
Kuhn is certainly right that we should talk about the economy and elections in probabilistic terms like “is associated with” or “is strongly related to.” And he is right that campaigns matter on the margins. But I’m not really sympathetic to the motivation behind his piece.
On one level, his literal reading of Klein and Krugman is unnecessarily uncharitable. These are smart guys. ... They’re just writing for a mass audience and so wrote cleanly and boldly without a bunch of quasi-academic qualifiers and caveats.
In fact, I think it’s extremely helpful for Klein and Krugman to make this case boldly... Here’s the position I find myself in as a political scientist. Economic performance explains some large fraction of the variation in presidential election outcomes, presidential approval, trust in government, and many other things. But most political journalism ignores this fact and prefers to talk about tactics and narrative.
Case in point: how many of the 15 “political experts” writing in the New York Times’s forum on “how Obama can rebound” emphasized the simple fact that the economy is weak and so Obama will not rebound significantly until it turns around? One. Mark Blumenthal. The rest wrote about policy hobbyhorses, strategy, and a bunch of other stuff that could matter “at the margins” but probably won’t, and certainly won’t matter as much as economic performance over the rest of his term.
It’s actually valuable to state the economic case as starkly as Klein and Krugman did. ... The view of many, if not most, political journalists is miles from where political science stands. If it takes a statement like Klein’s (or some of mine) to pull that view towards one that acknowledges that economic performance is the key driver, then that’s fine with me.
And it appears to be a lesson that Obama is having a surprisingly hard time learning given his strong connections to the "it's the economy, stupid" crowd. Inflation and unemployment are particularly important in election outcomes. However, inflation is nowhere in sight -- the worry right now is about falling prices driven by poor economic conditions, not inflation -- and fighting inflation is mainly the Fed's responsibility, so reducing unemployment through job creation should be the main focus of the Obama administration. Even if there's little chance that legislation can make it through Congress, the perception that Obama is fighting for the unemployed rather than for banking and big business interests more generally would be very helpful. There have been a few speeches lately where he rebukes the GOP over unemployment compensation, but nothing like what is needed if Obama wants to change the perception of what and who his administration stands for.
The lack of effort and leadership on the unemployment and jobs front has been a big disappointment. I'd like to see this change, but it may be too late to alter perceptions significantly before the midterm elections, and the same is true for legislation designed to stimulate job creation. However, the unemployment problem will extend far past the midterms -- it may still be a problem two years later when the presidential election rolls around -- and, elections or not, there are millions and millions of people in need of jobs. It's time for the administration to get that, and start doing all it can to help with the unemployment problem even though the payoff in November won't be as large as it could have been if they'd figured this out long ago.