Voters Are Shortsighted About the Economy (But Not THAT Shortsighted)

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Brendan McDermid / Reuters

A screen shows the Dow Jones industrial average after the closing bell on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange June 1, 2012

A few minutes before 8:30 a.m. on the first Friday of every month, political reporters, Wall Street types and economists go to the website of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and furiously hit the refresh button.  Like teen girls awaiting the announcement of Justin Bieber tour dates, they go on Twitter to count down the minutes in all-caps and speculate about the prospective news. They are waiting for the monthly jobs report, the figures that will shape the news of the day. It’s important. (More so than Justin Bieber, at least.) But it’s not something that normal people–the kind of people who will decide the presidential election–pay much attention to.

Here, Gallup has the data: Even though payrolls increased by a measly 69,000 jobs in May and reporters wailed about big downward revisions for previous months, about as many Americans viewed last week’s report as “mixed” as viewed it as “negative.” The overall view of the country’s economic trajectory, Gallup found, didn’t move at all. But the elites had their moment of panic! (OK, me included.) The Dow plunged. The Obama campaign cut a defensive ad that opens with”the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression” and a “but” clause after bragging about private sector job growth. The spot fingers Congress as the culprit of the stunted recovery, but it’s still pretty grim stuff for an incumbent. Mitt Romney, meanwhile, characterized the report as “devastating” and waved around a copy of Noam Scheiber’s Escape Artists (mischaracterizing its reporting) to show how it’s all Obama’s fault.

(MORE: Is the Stock Market Wildly Overoptimistic?)

It’s received wisdom that the economy affects elections. It’s also sinking in that economic absolutes, say 7.9% vs. 8.1% unemployment, are less important than the trend: Whether people feel the national economy is getting better. But then there’s the timing of the trend. When do these numbers matter? How long does it take people to react? Does the secret to winning the election lie in Reagan’s famous question, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” or, as Buzzfeed breathlessly suggested after the latest unemployment report, in the BLS report released four days before the election?

The Gallup data blows a pretty big hole in Buzzfeed’s theory. Unless there’s a true cataclysm–oil shock, bank runs or whatever–economic perceptions probably won’t change so quickly. That’s backed up by research from Cornell political scientist Peter Enns, who found  “few significant immediate effects for economic conditions or news on the public’s rating of the economy. When economic indicators or economic news shift, very few partisans of any stripe respond by updating their economic evaluations that same month.” So much for a November surprise.

(MORE: America’s Slow Economic Recovery)

But Reagan wasn’t exactly right either. The time period that matters is much shorter than four years. According to political scientist Gabriel Lenz, research suggests it’s the six months of economic performance before the election that has the largest impact. The reasons, which I won’t go into here, are psychological–it’s the way people think about everything from physical pain to economic pain. But the important thing is that means we’re now in the critical period of economic performance that will affect the election in November: between one and six months out.

So, am I saying the May jobs report matters even though it didn’t immediately change Americans’ opinions about the economy? Yes. And so too does the fact that a bunch of reporters geek out about the jobs report every month. People don’t judge the national economy based on their grocery bills or the local factory. They base it on big, macroeconomic events, which they learn about in the media. Cornell’s Enns found news stories to be a very solid predictor for economic sentiment.  It just takes a little time to sink in.

MORE: Dire Jobs Report Throws Washington into the Pressure Cooker