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It Is Too the Economy!

Sean Trende at Real Clear Politics has a nice post up critiquing the notion that the perilous state that the Democrats and President Obama now find themselves in has entirely to do with the economy; instead, he thinks unpopular domestic initiatives like health care and cap-and-trade deserve a significant share of the blame.

You should go read Sean’s article in full if you haven’t yet; I’m entirely agreed with him that it’s a bit too simple-minded to say “Economy, stupid!” and leave it at that. The relationships between the electorate and its Presidents are more complicated than that; so for that matter are the relationships between economic variables and measures like Presidential approval in the statistical record. But I think Trende is being somewhat too literal-minded in his counter-critique.

Sean cites the unpopularity of health care and cap-and-trade as being major contributing factors to the difficulties Obama is facing. We probably ought to remove cap-and-trade from the discussion: polls show that (i) nobody knows what it is; (ii) to the extent they think they know what it is, they actually kind of like it. And it was only passed through one chamber of Congress, and this happened more than a year ago. Perhaps at the margins there will be one or two congressional districts in the Midwest where a Democrat voting yea will lose his seat as a result, but if you think cap-and-trade ranks higher than about the 25th biggest problem that Democrats have, you’re spending too much time watching The McLaughlin Group.

Health care, on the other hand, clearly deserves a major place in any narrative about the political climate. Technically speaking, it’s merely somewhat unpopular, rather than wildly so — but the passions it invokes are asymmetric in ways that cut against the Democrats.

The real question, however, ought to be this: why did health care became so unpopular? It didn’t start out that way. Polls throughout 2008 showed the idea of health care to be quite popular, in fact, and Obama won a campaign in which a health care bill very much like the one that the Congress actually passed was a central piece of his agenda

But something very bad happened to perceptions of health care reform in the year or so that the Democrats were debating it. In spring 2009, before the health care debate had really begun, you had roughly speaking 40 percent of the country in favor of the bill, 25 percent opposed to it, and 35 percent undecided. We wound up, in March 2010 when the bill was passed, at about 40 percent in favor, 50 percent opposed, and 10 percent undecided. Essentially every single undecided voter wound up in the oppose column.

Why was this? Well, part of it is because the White House had a terrible meta-strategy, handing over both communication and tactical duties to a Democratic Congress that was never popular, except to the extent it was an alternative to the even-less-popular Republican Congress. But the other big reason was the economy, given the following specific sequence of events:

1. In October 2008, the Bush administration (with significant support from Democrats in Congress) passed a roughly $800 billion bailout bill, which it pitched as being necessary to avert a near-term economic catastrophe.

2. In February 2009, the Obama administration (with near-universal support from Democrats in Congress) passed a roughly $800 billion stimulus bill, which it pitched as being necessary to avert a near-term economic catastrophe.

3. Employment reports which came out between February 2009 and July 2009 showed the economy losing 3.7 million jobs, far worse than what most economists were anticipating: an economic catastrophe.

4. It was about at this point that the Democrats began their public push for another roughly $800 billion bill, this time in the form of health insurance reform, which they pitched as being necessary to avert a long-term economic catastrophe.

The combination of these four events was going to make it a tough slog for health care reform, to put it mildly. Even if (2) and (3) had occurred, but the bailout hadn’t, the Democrats probably would have been OK. But if two $800B bills would have been a coincidence in the public’s mind, the third one made for a pattern, and it was a pattern juxtaposed against the background of an economy which was getting worse rather than better.

Of course, the Democrats didn’t have to push forward with health care reform last spring: it seems likely that their near-term electoral position would be better if they hadn’t. It might nonetheless have been disastrous for Democrats to abandon health care after they’d chosen to undertake it.

Nevertheless, I don’t think you can really do an adequate job of modeling the political climate over the past year or so by treating health care as some sort of exogenous negative shock which behaved independently from the economy. Under slightly different economic circumstances, such as if the February-July 2009 jobs numbers were surprises to the upside rather than the downside, it could very easily have been a positive for Democrats.

Or you can believe, as Michael Barone and a lot of other conservative commentators do, that the public had some kind of spontaneous Jeffersonian awakening, casting off the chains of the welfare state and achieving enlightenment in the auspices of a tea-party rally. The tea party needs to be a part of this story; it did the Republicans an enormous favor, which was allowing the conservative brand (which has never gone out of style) to shed its Republican skin. Even if the tea party might also cost the Republicans a seat or three in places like Kentucky and Nevada, that’s a trade they’d take many times over.

But tea party itself emerged in April 2009, largely as a reaction to the state of the economy — and moreover, to the state of the economy as it had been set in motion long before Obama took office. This is not to say that the tea party wasn’t buoyed by the health care debate, which suited its purposes well enough and expanded its ranks. But in going mainstream, the tea party lost whatever claim it might have had to articulating a particularly novel or self-consistent political philosophy — indeed, this is precisely what it didn’t do — its platform having become essentially indistinguishable from a weighted average of Goldwater, Reagan and Bush 43.

Where do we go from here? Whether or not it was a gamble of their own volition, the Democrats were caught playing a very high-stakes poker hand. Not because of any Jeffersonian awakening, but because the public are not econometricians trained to distinguish causation from correlation, a great deal was going to depend on what the state of the economy happened to be at the time the Democrats began to be held accountable for the steps they had taken to try to ameliorate the recession. If you believe this Rasmussen poll, we’re nearing that point now — about as many voters hold Obama responsible for the state of the economy as do Bush — and this is coming at a time when the economic data is printing negatively and another recession is quite possible. So, there’s a real possibility that Democrats will lose their shirts; the question we might be debating years from now is whether they played their hand poorly or took a bad beat from the economy.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.