Chart: Nate Silver, NYT/FiveThirtyEight (link
Nate Silver adds a dose of reality
to the simplistic claim
that President Obama's reelection prospects are a direct function of the unemployment rate:
An article in today’s Times notes, for example, that “no American president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt has won a second term in office when the unemployment rate on Election Day topped 7.2 percent.” The 7.2 percent figure refers to Ronald Reagan, who resoundingly won a second term when the unemployment rate was at that number in November 1984.
This type of data may be of limited utility for predictive purposes, however. Reagan won re-election by 18 points in 1984, suggesting that he had quite a bit of slack. An unemployment rate of 7.5 percent would presumably have been good enough to win him another term, as might have one of 8.0 percent, 8.5 percent or even higher.
It’s also not obvious that Roosevelt should be excluded from the calculus, particularly given that the economic crisis the country is working its way out of is the most severe since his administration. He won re-election in 1936 with an unemployment rate of 16.6 percent, and again in 1940 with a rate of 14.6 percent.
Nate dives into the numbers to flesh out his thesis, but the basic point is this: in the abstract, neither the unemployment rate nor changes in the unemployment rate are determinative factors in presidential elections. You also have to look at the context of the unemployment rate (and how it changes), so things like how voters perceive the unemployment rate are important factors.
To put it in more partisan (but nonetheless reality-based) terms, the fact that it was George W. Bush and the Republicans who wrecked the economy is a relevant fact. And the fact that Republicans haven't done a single thing for job creation since retaking control of the House is also a relevant fact. As will be the fact that whoever wins the Republican nomination will basically be running on a platform of more of the same stuff that got us into the mess in the first place.
Obviously, President Obama would be in better political shape if the economy were stronger and the unemployment rate lower, but the point here is the the people who are really hurt by high unemployment are the jobless and people looking for better work. President Obama will be fine, and even if unemployment doesn't drop below 7.2%, he still is a favorite to win reelection.
Another way of saying it: unemployment is a problem for America, not the Democratic Party.