The New York Times:
Economists are slashing their already tepid growth forecasts. The unemployment rate seems stuck at around 8 percent. It is a tense time for the American economy. It is also the time that some experts believe the country’s undecided voters are beginning to cement their presidential picks.
That is why many political scientists and consultants consider Friday’s jobs report and the ones immediately following it to be so important — perhaps more so than those of the previous three years.
“I don’t know whether it is because American voters are myopic, or because they are forward-looking,” said Andrew Gelman, the director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University. “But they appear to care most about change in the economy in the year preceding the election,” rather than the state of the economy over an incumbent president’s first four years.
Some narrow the critical period even more, arguing that what happens from April until October of an election year weighs especially heavily on voters’ minds.
“It’s difficult to sort out the electoral effects of specific slivers of economic conditions,” said Larry M. Bartels, a Vanderbilt University professor of political science. But he cited the economic climate of the middle of the election year as unusually important — a time when even wavering voters begin to lock in decisions on the presidential race and lock out conflicting reports about the economy.
(...) Steve Schmidt, the 2008 campaign manager for Senator John McCain’s presidential bid, said voter attitudes about the economy had solidified already and would not be much affected by new jobs numbers on Friday or the rest of the year.
“The shape of the playing field is largely set,” Mr. Schmidt said. “They believe it’s a very bad economy. They’re pessimistic and they’re anxious. The campaign that wins is the campaign best able to address the anxiety. It’s a comfort argument.”
(...) “The arguments that campaigns put out in July and August are largely unheard by the people who will decide the election,” Mr. Schmidt said. “Both sides are putting down markers for the arguments they’ll make in the fall.”
(...) Analysts say voters give more heed to where the economy is headed than to its current state. That means a president overseeing a high but falling unemployment rate might have a better shot than a president overseeing a lower but increasing one.
(...) Studies also show that voters make their decisions based less on their personal experiences than a general sentiment — meaning news articles about the national economy this summer might be more influential than each voter’s experience, or a neighbor’s business, or a cousin’s or child’s trouble getting a job.
“If I’m the voter, I’m not paying attention to statistics,” said John Sides, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University. “I’m not going to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Web site to look at the jobs report. I’m paying attention to news reports. And the trend in unemployment is often driving the news coverage.”