Mitt Romney’s Trend Problem

The GOP has a problem regarding the economy: it is getting better.

I am not a Pollyanna on the economy and certainly recognize that it still has serious problems (e.g., unemployment is still too high).  There is also the looming Euro problem that is by no means over and could have serious effects on the US economy this year.  However, if we want to look at the politics of the economy at the moment, the Republican nominee, very likely Mitt Romney, is going to have to figure out a way to address the fact that trends at the moment are positive for health of the economy.  Romney knows this, so we get (from First Read, h/t:  Steve Benen):

In his remarks today, Romney also acknowledged the economy was getting better — something he has said before — and declared  that the social safety net needs to be protected.

“And [President Obama]’s going to say the economy is getting better,” Romney said. “Thank heavens it’s getting better. It’s getting better not because of him, it’s in spite of him and what he’s done.”

Note:  he is having to acknowledge that “the economy is getting better” (thrice in rapid succession, as Steve Benen notes, in fact).

Yes, Romney can assert that whatever positive news about the economy is “in spite of” the president and not because of the president’s policies, however this situation creates a political difficulty for his campaign because, let’s face facts, it would be politically better for the GOP candidate if the economy was not in recovery of any kind.  This is true, by the way, regardless of what is causing current trends.

As John Sides pointed out at the Monkey Cage the other day:

As we’ve noted on the blog many, many times, the most important predictor of presidential election outcomes is the trend in key economic indicators in the year before the election.  Although Americans hardly see the economy as healthy, the trend from September into now is the best news Barack Obama could hope for.  Now he just needs to hope it continues.

To support his position, Side noted the following from Gallup:

I would also note that the trend line for unemployment for is in the right direction (source):


Yes, unemployment is still high, but the line is going in the right direction.  As such, Romney has to argue how he would make that slope of the line steeper.  From a campaigning point of view, this makes things harder on him as the challenger because it requires (as per the quote above) the acknowledgment that things are going in the right direction (which helps Obama) and then he has to argue why Obama doesn’t deserve the credit and then get to how he would make it even better.  Clearly, this creates a a more convoluted argument than a politician would prefer.  Obama, meanwhile can campaign on a) things are getting better, and b) Romney would take us back to the policies that got us into this mess in the first place.  This is a clearer message that is easier to package.

Note:  the issue here is not who is right or wrong about economic policy, but rather the address how the current trends in the economy affect the incumbent president’s campaign and that of his likely challenger.

FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, US Politics, , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. gVOR08 says:

    Not to worry. Romney can continue lying and McConnell and Boehner can fix the direction of the trend lines. Saw just yestrday that the concensus forecast is 2.5% GDP growth in ’12 – unless we fail to extend the payroll tax holiday, in which case it will be lower. Incidentally, an admission that stimulus works.

  2. Hey Norm says:

    In addition to the Eurozone crisis, which you note, Israel seems intent on provoking a war with Iran. In the best case this could increase oil costs….the worst case is unimaginable.

  3. Hey Norm says:

    It’s also important to note that Romney has repeatedly said Obama made the economy worse. Now, faced with inconvenient questions and unavoidable facts, he has flip-flopped on that…to the extent of claiming he never said it Obama made it worse.
    All Obama has to do is play the sound bites.

  4. Jeremy says:

    Something to note, though, is that the unemployment figure is going down because more people are just giving up looking for work and dropping out. If you don’t look for work, you don’t get counted. Then, if the unemployment rate does continue to fall, people will feel the economy is getting better and go back to start looking for work…thus increasing the unemployment rate. I think it’s a bit early to be saying things such as this. We still have, what, ten months (not counting January)?

  5. Jib says:

    It is not as simple as ‘if the economy goes bad, Obama loses’. Obama’s response to the recession is what is on trial and with the trend in place, it blunts criticism of his policies. If a external crisis causes the economy to go south, it does not automatically mean Obama will be hurt by it. The polls show that people still know that Bush and the republicans started this recession. If the EU or Israel or repubs create a crisis that drags down the economy, it will be Obama’s specific response to that crisis that will help or hurt his standing.

    As we learned in 2004, re-elections really are not just a referendum on how good a job the sitting president has done. It is a 2 person race and the key question is which one of the 2 people running will do a better job in the next 4 years. When the incumbent has done a bad job, and the challenger has nothing but promises to sell, it can go good for the challenger. But if the challenger has their own record to run on it gets more complicated.

    Running against Romney will really help Obama with this. All over the industrial mid-west there are people who have jobs today because Obama bailed out the auto companies. They know that they would not have jobs if the repubs had control of the white house. If the economy heads south, who would you want in the white house, the buy who saved your job last time or the guy who made his fortune laying people off? Ivory tower types who have no skin in the game (i.e. they are under no risk of losing their own jobs) may complain about the auto bailout but for the people who have their jobs and lively hood on the line, pretty economic theories are not as important as pay checks.

  6. MBunge says:

    An improving economy is always bad news for the Presidential challenger. What makes it especially hard for the GOP is that their own economic vision is a total mess. They haven’t had a new thought on the economy since 1980 and many of the ideas they used to have had to be discarded when they collided with some ideological or political imperative.


  7. You may have seen John Hinderaker revel in his stupidity yesterday:

    We who are unhappy that unemployment has increased on Obama’s watch …

    That’s obviously the line they’ll try. Will the party of Herman Cain fall for it? (painful lolz)

  8. Rob in CT says:

    There’s this line in Pulp Fiction that comes to mind:

    “Now let’s not go sucking each others [you know what] just yet.” [The Wolf]

  9. anjin-san says:

    The GOP has spend the last three years pretending that the train wreck Bush administration never happened and creating a culture of ignorance known as the tea party. The end result is that all they have going into the 2012 Presidential race is the hope that the events of the year will lead to suffering and hardship for millions of Americans.

    They have the stupid vote pretty much locked up, no room for growth there. All that’s left is to pray for disaster. What’s bad for America is good for Republicans.

  10. Tillman says:

    Clearly, this creates a a more convoluted argument than a politician would prefer.

    I think it still remains to be seen whether Romney will offer something close to a cogent argument instead of the pandering and slandering he’s been up to lately. Primary elections are different, sure, but getting my vote requires making sense and not resorting to ad hominem every damn chance you get.

  11. WR says:

    @anjin-san: “They have the stupid vote pretty much locked up”

    Unless Ron Paul runs third party. Really stupid people like Ron Paul.

  12. Septimius says:

    @john personna: What was the unemployment rate in January 2009 when the President took office? What is the unemployment rate today?

    I’ll give you a hint. The unemployment rate was 7.8% when Obama took office. It’s 8.5% today.

    Why exactly is John Hinderacker stupid for saying unemployment has increased on Obama’s watch?

  13. anjin-san says:

    @ Septimius

    I was wondering when the aforementioned stupid vote would weigh in. Glad you could join us.

    Bush left Obama with an economic disaster of historic proportions on his hands. Bush was the worst job creation President in history, and we lost 2.6 million jobs in 2008. In other words, the economy had a heart attack AND was hemorrhaging jobs BEFORE Obama took office.

    We have had 22 straight months of job gains under Obama. Even the Murdoch owned WSJ admits we are in a job recovery.

    Like I said, the GOP has the stupid vote locked up.

  14. Septimius says:

    @anjin-san: Try to read this real slow, maybe you’ll be able to follow. When Obama took office, the unemployment rate was 7.8%. That was in January of 2009. The unemployment rate today is 8.5%. Do you understand that 8.5 is greater than 7.6? That means that the unemployment rate has increased under Obama. If the unemployment rate was less than 7.6% today, then you could say that it has decreased under Obama.

  15. anjin-san says:

    @ Septimius

    Oh, I see. You are here to represent the “real stupid” vote. Sorry I did not give you full credit.

    Today’s GOP welcomes you. Party on Garth…

  16. Septimius says:

    @anjin-san: I’ll be partying on Tuesday, November 6 when your boy goes down in flames. You’ll be crying into your Pinot Grigio wondering why your fellow Americans were too stupid to understand that it’s still all Bush’s fault.

  17. David M says:

    @Septimius: Explain how Obama’s policies affected the unemployment rate immediately upon taking office in 2009? Might need to include the job loss numbers for those months as well. Oh what, it’s extremely unlikely Obama’s policies had much of an affect until summer 2009 at the earliest? Well now, that craps all over your bogus talking point.

    Unless of course you believe that a president has secret green lantern jobs ring that would have turned massive job losses into gains…

  18. Septimius says:

    @David M: He signed an $800 billion stimulus bill into law on Feb 17, 2009, less than 1 month after taking office. At that time, unemployment was 8.3%. By October, 2009 unemployment was at 10%. During the entire year of 2010, unemployment stayed between 9.4% and 9.9%. In August, 2011, unemployment was still above 9%.

    Even his own Council of Economic Advisers admitted that the stimulus only “created or saved” 2.4 million jobs. That works out to $278,000 per job! Face it. Obama’s jobs record sucks.

  19. David M says:


    $278,000 per job!

    I can’t imagine why you think anyone would take this seriously, I’m just laughing now. And thanks for pointing out just how bad the economy was in the first half of 2009 before Obama’s policies could take effect, I couldn’t have done a better job showing how misleading the unemployment comparison between the inauguration and now was.

  20. Ernieyeball says:

    @anjin-san: “They have the stupid vote pretty much locked up, no room for growth there…”

    Are you sure?

  21. Septimius says:

    @David M:

    “As of the first quarter of 2011, the report estimates that the Recovery Act raised employment by 2.4 to 3.6 million jobs relative to what it otherwise would have been.”

    This comes from the report of the White House Council of Economic Advisers. At the time, $666 billion in stimulus money had been spent. Divide $666 billion by 2.4 million and you get $277500. Even if you take the White House’s high-end estimate of 3.6 million jobs you still get something like $185000 per job.

    The unemployment numbers in the first half of 2009 (the one’s you claim you can’t judge Obama on) were no higher than they were at the end of 2010 and only marginally worse than they were by the middle of 2011.

    If you think Obama is going to cruise to re-election with 8.5% unemployment, then you are delusional. I’m the one laughing now.

  22. David M says:

    @Septimius: The stimulus was spent over several years, but I don’t see that in your “calculations” there.

    Your insistence that the job losses in 2009 matter more than the trend between now and the election could not be more wrong. The key point in this post was that the economic trends are continuing to improve and that will help Obama more than Romney.

  23. @Septimius asks me:

    What was the unemployment rate in January 2009 when the President took office? What is the unemployment rate today?

    This is what I call “check what economic skills you have at the door.” It’s too stupid to respond to. I mean, if the reader cannot see an overhang coming out of 2007 and 2008, then he isn’t fit to talk about this.

  24. (Apparently Steven didn’t think it was too stupid to respond to, and patiently explained why Septimius’ question was asinine. Here. Whatever imbecile downgraded my comment can take his remedial education there.)