Today’s unemployment report was disappointing: only 96,000 jobs created last month, and revisions reducing the previous two months by 40,000, it was not only well below expectations but, more importantly, below what the economy needs to do to get people back to work. A lot of people are suffering in this economy, and for each of them, this is bad news.
As far as the presidential race goes, however, there’s nothing here that changes the status quo significantly. Last month, before the report was released, I said that “anything between 50,000 and 150,000 is not a very big deal politically, and it would take either an actual negative number or something over 200,000 to really shake things up.” So this number falls comfortably within that “not a big deal” range. Moreover, the headline unemployment rate number fell a bit, from 8.3 to 8.1 percent, making this a more mixed and muddled picture.
To be sure: this month’s numbers are a bit more important to the presidential race than last month’s, because as many have said a dramatic number could have affected the postmortem coverage of the party conventions. That is: we simply are going to have more than the usual amount of presidential election news coverage over the next few days, and normally inattentive voters are still triggered by the conventions to focus on politics a bit more than they usually do. So anything that affects the tone of that coverage could have some effect. However, especially with the reported unemployment rate falling, it’s unlikely that this report is bad enough to really change the way reporters and pundits see the Charlotte and Tampa meetings. Of course, some will overreact, but overall, the tone of the media coverage won’t change enough to make a difference.
Now, continuing weakness in the jobs market may spur the Federal Reserve to take further action, which in turn could mean some much-needed help for those who are hurting, but it’s increasingly less likely that any effects could show up until after the election (although the already-healthy stock market could be further helped by Fed action). The truth is that the economic context of the election is pretty much set in stone by now: a recovery, but not a particularly lively one. And today’s jobs report just doesn’t change that, no matter how many times people claim the contrary.
What the political science models tell us is that those economic circumstances point to a close race, with perhaps a slight advantage for the president (depending on which model you look at). Which in turn means that campaign-level factors, from the quality and frequency of ads to get-out-the-vote operations to, yes, the effects of the conventions, could all be important. The bottom line of today’s jobs report is mainly just to keep that dynamic in place.