What New Unemployment Numbers Mean for the 2012 Presidential Election

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New unemployment numbers confirm what most of us already know. The economy is better than in 2009 but still not fully recovered from the great recession. GDP numbers are no more encouraging

We know that voters, particularly the all-important independent voters, are heavily influenced by simple calculations. What is the current state of the economy? And, do economic conditions appear to be getting better or worse? There is little question that the economy is doing better than worst days of the economic recession but it is not clear how much better or how much responsibility can be attributed to President Obama's economic stimulus plan. Looking out into the future, there is additional uncertainty as to whether the economy will get better over the next several years. 

Assuming no major international crisis and no dramatic turn in the economy, this year's presidential campaigns will matter more than most. In 1984, the economy was steadily improving from the 1981 recession and Ronald Reagan was almost certain to win reelection. By 1996, the economic malaise of the early 1990s had been replaced by a tech boom that drove the economy through remarkable period of economic growth and prosperity assuring Bill Clinton's reelection. In 1992, in contrast, the unemployment rate was 7.5 percent; though, for a variety of reasons including media coverage, economic concerns outpaced economic indicators and concerns about the future sank George H.W. Bush's reelection campaign.  

In 2012, the economic signals are not particularly clear. Making the case that comparisons to 1980 aren't useful, Nate Silver writes that "the data this year is mediocre, but nowhere near that terrible." As a result of mixed economic signals, the winner of the presidential election will most likely be the candidate that successfully frames the economy into a coherent message and convinces voters he understands where we are today and where we need to go in the future. Voters will be skeptical as to whether President Obama can deliver hope and change and whether venture capitalist Mitt Romney can understand the economic problems and concerns of the average American. 

According to the Real Clear Politics average, President Obama currently has 2-3 points advantage in the national polls. Unless the economy sends a clearer signal (good or bad), expect the race to tighten  further. And, pay close attention to the campaigns: How they frame the economy - and how convincing they are to voters - will matter more in this election cycle than in most.