The economy as seen through political ads

Nancy Marshall-Genzer Oct 31, 2014
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The economy as seen through political ads

Nancy Marshall-Genzer Oct 31, 2014
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If you live in a swing state, chances are you’ve seen a political ad or two in the run-up to this year’s midterm elections.  And there’s also a pretty good chance that ad talked about the economy.  

Which brings us to this question:  If those ads were your only source of information, what would you think about the state of the economy?  What kind of picture are the ads painting?  It’s not always what you’d expect.

Check out these two ads, for gubernatorial races.

In his ad, the Republican governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, says we’re on the road to recovery. 

And the Democratic candidate for governor of Wisconsin, Mary Burke, talks about bleak job prospects and layoffs.

“We would expect Democratic candidates to trumpet the success of the economy and for Republicans to be on the attack,” says Vincent Hutchings, political science professor at the University of Michigan. “But at the state level, especially if we’re talking about gubernatorial contests, that logic gets turned on its head.”

Hutchings says incumbents, whatever their political stripe, have to defend their handling of the local economy. Challengers blame economic problems on the incumbent. But in national, congressional races, political ads focusing on the economy are more predictable.

For Republicans, “it’s all doom and gloom,” says Erika Franklin Fowler, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project

Listen to ads from Republican congressional candidates, she says, and you think the economy will never pick up.

“So, a lot of ads will make references to the squeeze on the middle class in particular,” she explains. “I’ve seen ads on recent college graduates and frustration over spending a lot of money on a college education and not being able to find a job.”

Franklin Fowler says, for congressional Democrats, it’s morning in America — or it would be if it weren’t for the Republicans.     

“Democrats will often go after Republican incumbents and/or wealthy challengers who own businesses for shipping jobs overseas or for job losses,” she says.

In fact, Franklin Fowler says, about 20 percent of ads for all Senate candidates mention jobs, with very different takes on the jobs picture. So who’s right? I turned to Richard DeKaser, a corporate economist at Wells Fargo.

“I’d give the economy a B-minus,” he says.

DeKaser says we’re creating about 250,000 jobs a month, and GDP is growing at about three percent. That’s pretty good. 

But it’s an uneven recovery.  Not everyone is benefiting.  

So politicians can cherry pick economic data, to make a point.

“You can pick and choose from the data and tell pretty much any story you’d like,” DeKaser says. “And more often than not, that’s the case.  It’s just a matter of biased presentation rather than dishonest presentation. Though there is some dishonesty as well.”

And when the economic picture is a bit ambiguous like it is now, it’s that much easier to manipulate. 

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