Look at a map of the U.S. with each state’s unemployment rate stamped on it. You’ll see big states like California with unemployment at 10.2 percent (September 2012). Rhode Island’s at 10.5 percent. Illinois is at 8.8 percent.
Now look at the same map stamped with President Obama’s chances of winning the electoral votes in each state. According to Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog at The New York Times, the president’s odds in those states are 100 percent, 100 percent, and 100 percent, respectively.
How could President Obama be winning so big in these places, when job-seekers are losing so badly?
How could he be narrowly ahead in the national polls with unemployment at 7.9 percent in October 2012?
How could he be ahead in potential swing states like Pennsylvania (8.2 percent unemployment) and Michigan (9.3 percent)?
History seems to suggest he shouldn’t be.
No incumbent president or party since World War II has won reelection to a second term with unemployment above 7.5 percent.
Most winning incumbents ran on a record of having kept unemployment significantly lower than that. Lyndon Johnson (1964), Richard Nixon (1972), Bill Clinton (1996), and George W. Bush (2004) all won with unemployment around 5.5 percent in the final month before the election.
President George H.W. Bush (1992) lost with unemployment at 7.3 percent. It was 2 percent lower when he took office.
No incumbent president or party since World War II has won reelection to a second term with unemployment above 7.5 percent. Most winning incumbents ran on a record of having kept unemployment significantly lower than that.
Ronald Reagan came closest to the feat President Obama could pull off this year. It was in 1984, and President Reagan had overseen the country during a severe recession in the early 1980s. Unemployment in October of 1984 was 7.4 percent—a measly 0.1 percent lower than when he’d been elected the first time. But he convinced voters better times were ahead and the economy was moving in the right direction. A similar dynamic may be in play this time around.
Princeton University political historian Julian Zelizer says voters remember the bad times a president stepped into in his first term. And sometimes, they cut him some slack.
“When President Obama took office, the economy was already in the tank,” says Zelizer. “We were in the middle of a crisis—not just a bad economy, but a sense of crisis. So the president’s ability to move beyond that state of economic crisis and make some progress was important. It gives him a little more support than he might otherwise have had.”
Zelizer believes that as economic recoveries take longer, and the unemployment rate settles higher after each recession, voters may be getting used to a ‘new normal’ on unemployment in presidential elections. “People are frustrated with the economy, they're scared about jobs,” says Zelizer. “This is not new to this administration, and it wasn't new to the Bush Administration.
"It's something that's been going on for a decade or more, with jobs going overseas, and new kinds of jobs here that don't provide the long-term benefits and job security that Americans were expecting," he adds. "There's a sense that we’ve moved from horrible to bad, in part because of some of the policies President Obama has employed.”
But that slack-cutting for the president can only go so far. If it turns out voters are just a bit more frustrated with the limited progress on jobs than the polls have told us, that could tip the balance for Mitt Romney on Election Day.