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State of the state: Missouri's political candidates are dealing with a nasty recession hangover

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 1, 2010 - Missouri voters will be thinking about joblessness, the chronically ill housing market and their slimmed down 401(k)s when they go to the polls on Nov. 2, say local political scientists.

"If you look at public opinion data in Missouri, or race by race or nationally, and you ask people what is the most important issue, the economy drowns out almost everything else," said Terry Jones, a political science professor at the University of Missouri St. Louis who researches voting habits.

"When you have unemployment in the 10-percent range," continued Jones, "you're going to have a lot of anxious people, not simply those who are unemployed but those thinking that the next axe might fall on them. And those who are underemployed are facing bleak prospects of finding something better."

Week after week, in poll after poll, the economy and jobs have topped the list when Americans are asked about their concerns:

  • 49 percent of respondents ranked the economy No. 1 in the most recent CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll (Sept. 21-23), with the federal budget deficit a distant second at 11 percent and education at 10 percent.
  • A whopping 60 percent ranked economy and jobs as their top worries in a CBS/New York Times Poll (Sept. 10-14), with health care, the budget deficit, social issues and the wars in Iraq And Afghanistan all netting just 3 percent each.
  • 62 percent of those questioned for a USA Today/Gallup Poll (Aug. 27-30) said the economy was "extremely important" in determining their votes for Congress.

Armed with those poll numbers, political candidates will keep the economy center stage through Election Day -- even in races for offices that might have minimal impact when it comes to setting economic policy, Jones said.
"If you do a poll in your district, you're going to find that the economy tops everything else, in almost every district," he said. "If you're a candidate -- including an incumbent candidate -- and you do not speak to that, you're not going to be seen as responsive to the voters."

'What have you done for me lately?'

For political candidates, 2010 is the year of election-omics: Who can convince voters that: A) They are not to blame for the current state of affairs, and B) they can do something about it.

It's a tough climate for politicians who must convince skeptical voters that they can deliver, even as the economy continues to sputter along, said Robert Cropf, chairman of the department of public policy studies at St. Louis University.

"You're going to have to promise the sky, but you're doomed not to deliver," Cropf said.

Voters can expect to see political ads that make big economic promises but are divorced from reality, he said.

"There's a limit to what you can control in one state that doesn't happen to be one of the largest states," Cropf said. "On the other hand, California is an economy to itself, so it has a little more power in that regard. But a state like Missouri that is in the middle of the pack is not going to have that much sway over what happens in the economy. There are certain things you can do to facilitate a recovery, but you can't pull a state out of a recession if the rest of the country is in a recession."

In nonpresidential election years, the economy traditionally is a major factor, particularly if it's not doing well, Jones said.

"So if you correlate how the economy is doing with how many seats the president's party loses in the House of Representatives and the Senate there typically is a fairly close correlation," Jones said. "There's no reason to suspect that that's not going to happen in 2010.''

UMSL political scientist Dave Robertson points to a shift in political energy.

"What's happening as much as anything else is the great excitement that Democrats had in 2006 and 2008 has really subsided, and now the energy and the excitement is on the Republican side," he said. "Because of the concerns about the direction of the country -- the Tea Party side of the Republican Party -- there is a lot of willingness to go to the polls and to vote against the incumbents.

"Which is to say against the party of Barack Obama. That will influence our U.S. House of Representatives a little bit and will certainly influence the U.S. Senate election."

Robertson said that joblessness, which remains a critical issue in Missouri, is helping to drive voter dissatisfaction. He said that August unemployment numbers in the St. Louis region, for example, were higher than the state's rate of 9.3 percent rate: 12.8 percent in the city of St. Louis; 9.5 percent in St. Louis County; and 9.4 percent in Jefferson County.

"The unemployment problem is certainly as bad -- if not worse -- in areas of the St. Louis region that have tended to vote Democratic in recent elections," Robertson said. "And that poses a great difficulty for Democrats, in particular, in the state, but it creates a lot of dissatisfaction with politics as usual, as well."

It's a tough bottom line for incumbents and the party of the current sitting president, the political scientists say, because voters may not care -- or even remember -- that the nation's current economic problems started at the end of President George W. Bush's term. President Obama is the man in charge now.

"It's generally the case that incumbents are held responsible for everything," Robertson said. "There are polls that show that people still blame Bush more than Obama for the economic problems, but their calculation is, what have you done for me lately?"

What's a Candidate to Do?

To see how the economy inspires campaigns, look no further than the Missouri U.S. Senate race between Democrat Robin Carnahan, Missouri's secretary of state, and Republican Roy Blunt, a congressman representing southwest Missouri.

"The strategy of each of those campaigns was evident from the earliest days," said Jones. "From the Blunt standpoint you have an unpopular president; Obama's approval ratings and favorability scores are lower in Missouri than they are nationally, typically by 3 to 6 percent points. Therefore, tying the Democrat to the Obama administration and to the unpopular Congress would be the way to go, and that's the way he's gone."

Jones said that Blunt caught a break with the footage of Obama and Carnahan appearing together on the same stage, and he has exploited it.

On the other hand, Carnahan couldn't allow the race to be a referendum on Obama's policies, Jones said.

"She knew she had to make the race more about Blunt -- and to put him in an unfavorable context if she was going to have a chance of succeeding," he said.

In addition to painting Blunt as a Washington "insider" who can't be trusted to do right by Missouri voters, Carnahan has also run against her own party to a certain extent, Jones said. Her advertising has blasted Blunt for his role in passing the unpopular $700 billion taxpayer bailout of the nation's financial institutions in 2008, though it was her party that pushed the legislation through Congress. Carnahan emphasizes that she is the candidate for Senate, not Obama.

"That's the best strategy for her to use: 'You're running against ME, Roy,'" said Jones, referencing a Carnahan ad.

Carnahan and Blunt have both tried to define the other candidate as a person who is unacceptable to vote for, Robertson said.

"The bailout is very unpopular and so you see them both use that," he said. "Both of them are trying to raise the negative evaluations of voters about their opponent. The problem is they may wind up making both of them unacceptable -- and make people really hold their nose for whoever they vote for."

Voters can expect to see most political candidates going negative this year, the political scientists say.

"To have a positive message, you would have to be safe in your district. Only in places where there is no contest will you see positive ads," Robertson said.

The Future is Now

With the election just weeks away, voters won't be seeing a dramatic improvement in the economy before heading to the polls -- and that is not great news for the Democrats.

"I don't see Obama's approval ratings shooting up or slipping much more than they are at the moment. The scenario in place now is largely the scenario that will be in place on Nov. 2," Jones said.

Robertson said that midterm elections historically mean a lower voter turnout, which will favor Republicans because the people who vote in them tend to be older and financially better off.

"People who are middle class and upper middle class are going to lean a little more to Republicans. They have seen three kinds of things affected that matter to them: their money for retirement was hit in 2008 and 2009 and won't recover in the near term; house values have declined; employment is shaky and unemployment benefits have been cut for a lot of people," he said.

Though economists say the recession is over and some economic indicators are pointing to a recovery -- albeit a slow one -- many voters simply won't be feeling the love by Election Day.

"The kinds of indicators that affect people on the ground lag behind economic indicators that allow economists to announce that a recession is over," Robertson said. "Employment is going to pick up later than the economy does, and the real question now is how much is it going to pick up and how optimistic are people going to feel."

Cropf said that despite the depth of the recession -- which was global -- Americans have little patience to wait for long-term solutions for an economy that has undergone dramatic technological changes, including the loss of the manufacturing sector.

"We are an instant-gratification society, and our expectation is that things will get better very quickly," he said. "We believe bad times are temporary and there is a fix. If it doesn't work, then there has to be a fix somewhere that will work. And that's just not the way complex, modern economies work. You can't do something like introduce a stimulus package or a tax cut or any other solution and expect it to work in a year or two."

So, the political pendulum will swing once more, as unhappy voters assign blame and give the "other" candidates a chance.

"If you are an incumbent, then woe to you because you were there during the years when all of this happened, and therefore it's all your fault," Cropf said.

Ironically, the unemployed will turn out in lower percentages than voters as a whole, Robertson said.

"Some in the Democratic constituency -- union people, for example, maybe minorities -- are not going to have the motivation or mobilization to go out and vote the way they did in 2008," Robertson said. "It may not be a huge shift in terms of numbers, but it's going to be enough to tilt the playing field toward the Republicans."

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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