It’s been through a rough four years, and it no longer rules the global marketplace as it once did, but the U.S. economy proved once again that it knows how to dominate a presidential campaign.
After two presidential elections in which issues such as national security, the war on terrorism and the wisdom of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan played outsized roles in the campaign debates, the economy came roaring back in 2012 as the undisputed top priority, both for voters and for the Obama and Romney campaigns.
Exit polls released by The Associated Press on Tuesday evening echoed similar public opinion surveys taken throughout the campaign, with 6 in 10 voters rating the state of the economy the top issue facing the nation. A slight plurality said things are still getting worse, but half of those polled said that former President George W. Bush was more culpable than President Obama for the poor state of the economy.
Just a quarter of those surveyed in the exit poll say they are better off than they were four years ago.
The steady-but-slow recovery under Mr. Obama from the Great Recession of 2008-2009 allowed each candidate to spin the data released throughout the campaign to support his case. Mr. Obama argued that falling jobless rates and rising consumer confidence showed that his policies were taking hold after the sharpest downturn in nearly 80 years. Mr. Romney, meanwhile, argued that the still-weak economy was being held back by Mr. Obama’s agenda and that the nation needed a new chief executive with the managerial smarts to fix the problem.
Even before the exit polls were taken, numerous voter surveys confirmed that the two parties had the right read on the mood of the electorate.
National Public Radio, for example, asked respondents last month which issues “were most likely to affect your vote for president and Congress this year.” Nearly three in four — 73 percent — chose economic and fiscal issues, with just 14 percent selecting social issues, such as abortion and gay rights, and barely 8 percent saying national security issues were their top priority.
The moment the dominance of pocketbook issues came into sharpest focus may have come, ironically, in the third presidential debate on Oct. 22, ostensibly devoted to foreign policy and defense issues. The candidates, whatever the question, repeatedly brought the discussion back to domestic economic issues, at one point clashing over who was responsible for starting a Massachusetts program Mr. Romney touted to hire more teachers.
“Generally, when you’re looking at a peacetime election or something close to a peacetime election, the economy will take up more space than foreign-policy issues, or any other issue for that matter,” said Henry Carey, a political scientist at Georgia State University who has worked on four national political campaigns. “Many of the big noneconomic issues — whether Iran gets the bomb or what to do about North Korea and the Arab Spring — are more theoretical than actual dangers, and so they’re hard for either candidate to exploit.”
While Mr. Obama regularly claims credit for the 2011 mission that killed terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, issues such as the administration’s use of drones for targeted assassinations or its handling of the recent attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, are too convoluted and confusing to figure as major electoral issues, Mr. Carey added.
Other issues sidelined
It’s not just foreign policy that has gotten short shrift in 2012.
Environmentalist groups Friends of the Earth Action and Forecast the Future, advocates of stronger governmental action to fight climate change, grew so frustrated with the failure of either campaign to address the issue that they started a website called Climate Silence (climatesilence.org) to highlight the lack of attention, even with a record-setting Atlantic superstorm devastating the East Coast a week before Election Day.
“From record heat waves to increasingly powerful storms, crushing droughts to unprecedented floodings, the impacts of climate change are now squarely being felt within our borders, to say nothing of what the future holds for our country and the world,” the groups say on the website.
“Yet amazingly, the clear and present danger of carbon-poisoned weather remains largely absent from this year’s presidential election.”
On other noneconomic issues, both campaigns found reason to lie low.
On immigration reform, Mr. Obama made a major play for Hispanic voters, but has faced uncomfortable questions from Mr. Romney and from Spanish-language media over his failure to fulfill a 2008 campaign pledge to introduce a comprehensive immigration-overhaul bill during his first year in office. Mr. Romney did not care to revisit some of the stands he took in the Republican primary fight on immigration and the “self-deportation” of illegal immigrants.
An Election Day poll by the Spanish-language media firm ImpreMedia found that even Hispanic voters in Virginia and 10 other key swing states rated “create new jobs/fix the economy” over “immigration reform” as their top voting priority this year by a margin of 53 percent to 35 percent.
Social issues such as abortion and legalizing marijuana also proved problematic for both campaigns. Mr. Obama referred to his support for Planned Parenthood funding and a woman’s right to choose on abortion, but his stands also led to a nasty battle with the Catholic Church over the birth-control funding mandates in his national health care law.
But gaffes over abortion policy proved costly for Republican candidates in Senate races in Missouri and Indiana, potentially upending what had been considered strong chances for GOP victories in two red states.
Still the economy, stupid
But analysts said the reason other issues failed to gain traction this year was because the cloud cast by the bad economy — and voter fears about their jobs, their incomes, their taxes and their retirement funds — overshadowed all other concerns. The monthly jobs numbers issued by the Labor Department became so politicized that some skeptics even accused the Obama administration of cooking the books when the jobless rate fell below 8 percent in October.
Of particular concern to both campaigns were the jobless rates in critical swing states, such as Florida, Virginia and Ohio, which were all below the national average of 7.9 percent on Election Day.
Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama returned again to jobs and the economy in their “closing arguments” during the campaign’s final days.
“I won’t waste any time complaining about my predecessor,” Mr. Romney told a huge rally in West Allis, Wis. “I won’t spend my effort trying to pass partisan legislation unrelated to economic growth. From Day One, I will go to work to help Americans get back to work.”
‘New economic patriotism’
In his final national TV ad, the president asked voters for more time for his policies to work and for what he called a “new economic patriotism.”
“The Republicans say, ‘You are on your own,’” Mr. Obama said. “That’s given us a country of just rich and poor and the well-connected using their power to get more tax cuts and breaks. Well, we need to make our country work for the middle class again.”
The economic issue has so dominated the campaign this year that political scientists are saying the result will yield new insights into which economic factors are most important in driving voters to the polls.
George Washington University analyst John Sides noted on the political science website the Monkey Cage (https://themonkeycage.org) on Monday that the election provided an almost laboratory-quality test of two theories of voter motivation.
Unlike most other presidential years, he writes, “specific economic indicators point in different directions: a forecast based on gross domestic product is more optimistic for Obama, compared to a forecast based on disposable personal income, which is more optimistic for Romney.”