Today’s jobs numbers are disappointing. Still, the economy has had more good news lately than bad for Barack Obama. While full employment remains a long way off, it’s increasingly hard for Mitt Romney to claim Obama ruined the economy.
It’s still quite possible that economic growth will be strong enough this year to make Obama the heavy favorite for reelection. If this happens, then Mitt Romney will want to avoid the issue which, up to now, has been central to his campaign. What will he be able to do instead?
Political scientist Lynn Vavreck has done good research that tells us there is room for a candidate to still win a close presidential election even if economic conditions don’t favor his candidacy — by focusing people’s attention on other issues, which can move the needle by perhaps two or three points. So are there any go-to issues left for Republicans?
Ezra Klein suggests that embracing deficit reduction is a plausible political alternative to the economy. But that would only be true if people really cared about the federal budget deficit. It’s far more likely that when ordinary citizens say that they’re worried about the deficit what they really are thinking about is the economy. So if the economy is doing well, the deficit won’t be a potent issue.
How about the GOP’s anti-regulatory push as an alternative? That also will likely fall flat if the recovery again accelerates. Voters only tend to be suspicious of “job-killing” government regulations when the economy is ailing. People care more about the enivronment, food safety and other positive effects of regulation when things are looking up.
What about social issues? Opinion about social issues is largely disconnected from the ebb and flow of the economy, but it’s hard to see Romney running on abortion or same-sex marriage in 2012.
Foreign policy? That is unlikely to break well for Republicans this cycle, unless events intervene. Other old GOP standbys, such as crime, have faded. Overall, majorities might agree with a hard-line immigration platform even if the economy does well. But it’s still not clear which way the issue would break with swing voters in 2012.
That’s why Mitt Romney’s best bet, even if the recovery accelerates, will be to keep his focus on the economy. Regardless of today’s disappointing numbers, there may be plenty of months ahead when the news is better. And if that happens, Romney won’t have anything else to run on. His only hope is if the country is in miserable shape.