Swing State Voters Say They’re No Better Off Than They Were Four Years Ago

Gallup polled swing state voters using Ronald Reagan’s famous question:

PRINCETON, NJ — A majority of voters in key 2012 election swing states say they are not better off than they were four years ago; 40% say they are better off. Swing-state voters’ assessments of their situation compared with 2008 have varied little since last fall.

The results are similar for all U.S. registered voters, among whom 42% say they are better off and 55% say they are not.

Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan famously asked Americans, in a 1980 presidential debate, if they were better off than four years ago. Shortly thereafter, he decisively defeated incumbent Jimmy Carter in the presidential election.

The question is relevant again in 2012 as Barack Obama seeks a second term as president with the economy still struggling to recover from the 2008-2009 recession. The fact that the majority of voters in the crucial states that will decide the election believe they are not better off is a challenge for the Obama campaign. That includes 50% of independent voters in the swing states, in addition to 36% of Democrats and 84% of Republicans saying they are not better off.

One key in determining how big a threat the lack of improvement in voters’ lives is to Obama’s re-election chances is whether they blame him for their situation. The poll finds that voters do not widely blame Obama for their circumstances. Twenty percent of swing-state voters say they are not better off and blame Obama alone. Another 15% are not better off and blame Obama but also blame George W. Bush. And 21% do not blame Obama, including 7% who believe Bush alone is responsible.

Given the state of the economy, this isn’t entirely surprising, and it’s entirely in line with polls showing the public believing the country is on the wrong track, and giving the President low marks for the how he’s handled the economy. Of course, it’s also likely reflective of a general pessmism in the country today, because it doesn’t seem like people really think anything would be better if Romney won the election:

Still, swing-state voters are not convinced they would be better off in four years under Romney. Forty-four percent predict they would be better off four years from now if Romney wins and 49% say they would not be better off. Those figures are roughly the same when voters are asked to predict their situation in four years if Obama is re-elected — 42% say they would be better off and 52% say they would not be.

A follow-up question asked voters to choose whether their situation would be better in four years if Obama is re-elected or if Romney is elected. Swing-state voters divide evenly, with 44% choosing Romney and 44% Obama. However, most of those who say they are not better off believe they would be better off in four years if Romney, rather than Obama, is elected.

The polls also shows that Obama has a slight lead over Romney in these twelve swing states: 

Barack Obama, who made history when he was elected president four years ago, would make a different kind of history if he wins re-election in November: The first incumbent in at least a generation to claim a second term when most Americans say they aren’t better off than they were when he moved into the Oval Office.

In USA TODAY/Gallup survey nationwide and in the 12 top battleground states, most voters say the situation for them and their families hasn’t improved over the past four years, the first time that has happened since Ronald Reagan famously posed the question in his debate with President Carter in 1980 — a contest Carter lost.

Even so, President Obama, who in 2008 became the first African-American elected president, maintains a lead over challenger Mitt Romney in the battleground states likely to decide the election, 47%-44%. That’s better than his standing in the non-battleground states, where Romney leads 47%-45%.

Despite airing millions of dollars in TV ads and taking a high-profile trip abroad, Romney has failed to budge in the swing states, stuck at 44% or 45% since April. In that time, Obama has maintained a steady 47% despite a string of disappointing monthly jobs reports and an 8.3% unemployment rate.

Both results are, of course, within the margin of error for the poll.

Now, as I’ve mentioned before, there are some huge caveats when it comes to this type of poll. It’s not a real national poll, but it’s also not a poll of an individual state. Instead, Gallup has created a sample intended to be representative of public opinion in these twelve states as a whole. States don’t vote in groups, though, so it’s unclear what this poll is telling us, if anything. Nonetheless, it does appear that the economy is still the main issue is that going to decide the election, and that’s something the Obama campaign ought to still be concerned about.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, Economics and Business, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Michael says:

    It staggers my mind anyone can answer “No” to the “Better Off” question. If you honestly think things are worse now, you don’t remember 4 years ago.

  2. Moosebreath says:

    “Nonetheless, the polls also shows that Romney has a slight lead over Obama in these twelve swing states”

    “Even so, President Obama, who in 2008 became the first African American elected president, maintains a slight lead over challenger Mitt Romney in the battleground states likely to decide the election, 47%-44%. That’s better than his standing in the non-battleground states, where Romney leads 47%-45%.”

    These two sentences are entirely inconsistent. I suspect the second is correct, and Doug has his partisan-colored reading glasses on again.

  3. al-Ameda says:

    Of course the Ryan-Romney plan to cut taxes by 27%, increase defense spending, and begin the privatization of Medicare – all while running large deficits for a decade will make us all better off.

  4. It’s the Congress, stupid.

  5. sam says:

    Uh, what Moose said, as far as the inconsistency goes. As for Doug’s opthalmological problems, I dunno.

  6. Obviously I misread the opening paragraphs of the quoted articles. I’ve revised the post.

  7. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Gallup is funny. In the same ways in which Chris Farley was funny in “Beverly Hills Ninja.” The graf where they reminded everyone of Obama’s skin color is priceless. Have you heard the news, Sparky? Obama’s black! Although I have to give them some credit. For this puff piece they actually used a registered voter sample set (one notch above EEG flatline) as opposed merely to “adults” (EEG flatline).

    In any event, it goes without saying that more people are worse off now than they were in Jan. 2009. The unemployment rate substantially is higher (albeit down from its peak). Long-term unemployment significantly is worse. The labor force participation rate substantially is lower. The employment population ratio is a lot lower. The housing market is no better and arguably is worse. Granted, it’s a big country and not everyone falls into the same boats. Hell, I for one am a lot better off today than I was four years ago, but then again the chances that I’ll be voting for Obama are the same as Todd Akin’s chances of being named president of NOW.

    The election will come down to demographics and turnout. If the Democrat-media machine can dupe enough people on the right and putative right into not voting and simultaneously gin up enough turnout among the various political identity groups then Obama not only could win reelection he probably will win reelection. But time of course will tell for certain.

  8. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Oops, USAT/Gallup, that is. More coffee, please.

  9. C. Clavin says:

    Outside the fact that the poll is essentially worthless…
    Are they aware the Dow has gone from 7,000 to 13,000?
    Are they aware that we have added Private Sector jobsfor the last 27 months?
    Maybe all the people polled are the Public Sector workers that have been laid off because Republicans are not interested in doing what they were more than happy to do under Bush.
    Here’s Ryan in 2002:

    “…What we’re trying to accomplish today with the passage of this third stimulus package is to create jobs and help the unemployed…What we’re trying to accomplish is to pass the kinds of legislation that when they’ve passed in the past have grown the economy and gotten people back to work…”

  10. Lomax says:

    There is no state where people are better off now than they were four, or even ten years ago.

  11. MM says:

    @Michael: Well. some people probably are worse off. But overall, this reminds me of the polls that come out asking people if crime is going up, or kids are dumber than they used to be. Every metric says that crime is going down and kids are no dumber than kids 30 or 50 years ago, but everyone believes the opposite.

    You see a few stores near you close down and hear about high unemployment and you forget about how your 401(k) lost value 4 years ago or how many of your friends were laid off.

  12. @Lomax:

    There is no state where people are better off now than they were four, or even ten years ago.

    The question is how smart commentators are going to play it. In the great climb from 1980 to 2000 family net worth increased:

    Real Household Net Worth per Capita

    As those charts show, we took a hit in the dot-com bust, but then recovered to higher levels. Then we took the big whammy from the Great Recession.

    The peaks and valleys are not synchronized with Presidential terms at all. I think government has a role to play. Doug disagrees, but rather than explain why exactly he thinks government cannot improve the economy, he just plays a Presidential hit game.

    I’d say that if you can think of a way for government to help, you have Congress act, and place a bill on the President’s desk. It’s the Congress, stupid.

  13. A little “film at 11 moment”:

    Research: Loan-to-income guidelines could have “forestalled much of the housing boom”

    Well duh, right? Except we didn’t need loan guidelines or even completed applications, because Wall Street had figures some magic so it all didn’t matter.

    Obama, the Time Traveling President was no doubt involved.

  14. superdestroyer says:

    @john personna:

    Many economist have explain why the government can do little for short term economic conditions. The government is slow, it takes months to gather the data needed for making decisions.

    However, President Obama had not been very good for long term economic conditions. Saying that the U.S. is not competent enough to build a pipeline, an oil production platform, a rare earth mine, a nuclear power plant, or a high-tension power line does little for economic confidence. Promising higher taxes, more regulation, and open borders in the future does little to help companies that manufacture things or try to market to the middle class. Rampant credential sm does little to help the middle class.

    What most people understand is that Obama Administration is more interested in delivering goodies to their chosen groups instead of helping the economy. Most people understand that the talk about the environment, education, or the long term sustainablility of entitlement is a lie. They see what the Democrats have done with the Dreamers and realize that the Democrats do not really care about the environment, do not really care about improving schools, or improving the quality of life in the U.S.

    That is why people are pressimstic. The odd thing is how many progressives just do not care any more that the U.S. is on the wrong track or that people are pessimistic. The progressives have almost total power in the U>S. and know that the Republicans are not going to get it back.

  15. @superdestroyer:

    However, President Obama had not been very good for long term economic conditions. Saying that the U.S. is not competent enough to build a pipeline, an oil production platform, a rare earth mine, a nuclear power plant, or a high-tension power line does little for economic confidence. Promising higher taxes, more regulation, and open borders in the future does little to help companies that manufacture things or try to market to the middle class. Rampant credential sm does little to help the middle class.

    What an idiot. First because you didn’t name the natural gas boom, which was bigger than all those, an second because (of course) a President doesn’t build those things.

  16. Related:

    In my exchanges with economists so far, globalization is certainly among the most commonly cited factors for the income slowdown. American workers today face vastly more competition from foreign workers — especially foreign workers who earn much less money than the typical American — compared with past decades.

    Like a typical blinkered wingnut, you model an isolated America and totally ignore what is really going on.

  17. superdestroyer says:

    @john personna:

    I find it odd that a progressive would point to natural gas when progressivs had been uniform in their hatred of fracking for natural gas and has pushed states to ban the practice. Once again, Democrats and progressives push the idea that the U.S. is so incompetent that we are not capable of exploring and harvesting natural gas.

    For the private sector to build any of those things, they have to have a permit from the government. The Obama Administration has been quite clear that they will not issue permits for any the items I listed above. Progressives have convinced themselves that their is a magic wand that will magically make things appear such as rare earths for wind generators or high-tension powerlines needed for a smart grid. However, progressives will always oppose any real construction or develop and claim everyone who wants to actually build something just wants a dirty environment.

    People are pessimistic because they have become aware that the dominate political forces in the U.S., elite white progressives, want the U.S. to be a third world country with a small group of elite, Ivy educated patrons, and a large number of third world, uneducated, poor peons who will do all of the dirty work.

  18. superdestroyer says:

    @john personna:

    If progressives really cared about wages, they would not support open borders and unlimited immigration. When the Obama Administration puts 2 million illegal immigrants on the path to citizenship, receiving entitlements,and automatically voting for the Democratic Party, it should be clear that progressives do not care about increasing real wages.

    Progressives must feel that their is a magic wand that will make real wages go up at the same time that the increased wages will have not adverse effects on the economy.

  19. @superdestroyer:

    I am an independent, but I am extremely wary of fracking.

    I don’t know, do you think people should be able to set their kitchen taps on fire and have them burn?

    Anyway, the point was not that fracking was an unrestrained good, it is not, but that you can’t tell a true history. You write a comment about everything wrong in the energy picture, without naming where production is up, and yes, where environmentalists are losing.

    If you can’t be honest, I can’t care.