The best-case scenario for how job numbers will help Democrats in November

Friday's job numbers for May — pretty good, not exceptional — almost certainly won't be the first domino to fall in a complex pattern that ends up with Democratic candidates surging to victory in November. But that's no fun to admit. So, instead, let's game out how it could be.

Step one: Economic confidence spikes.

Economic confidence is a fickle thing, but it's the best place to start. According to Gallup, it has held relatively steady over the past year and a half, based on Americans' responses to two questions: how are economic conditions, and do you think they're getting better or worse? The new jobs number itself probably won't inspire people to think the economy is doing dramatically better, but seeing more people go back to work might.

The May numbers, as you may have heard, hold additional symbolism. The latest data mark the first time that the number of people employed in America has passed the pre-recession peak, meaning employment is at an all-time high. (This doesn't account for growth in the population, etc., but we'll set that aside for the purposes of this argument.) So President Obama and the Democrats have a ready-made talking point that you'll start hearing, oh, probably about 5 minutes ago.


Step two: Obama's approval rating improves.

In 2012, Gallup noticed something interesting about Obama's approval rating: It appeared to be linked to economic confidence. "[I]f economic confidence rises in the coming months," Lydia Saas and Frank Newport wrote, "President Barack Obama's job approval rating will likely rise as well."

That doesn't appear to have held up especially well over the course of 2013. Between the 2012 election and now, Obama's approval rating dropped about 10 percentage points. And, since 2012, there have been other complicating factors that have decreased confidence in the president's performance, like Obamacare. As we noted this week, people are losing confidence in Obama's ability to get things done.

But we're crafting a best-case scenario here! Obama's been buoyed by good economic news before, so it could certainly happen again. Let's assume then that the spike in economic confidence helps Obama climb back above water with voters.

Step three: A popular president hits the campaign trail.

"The president is being taken off the field as a Democratic positive," Republican pollster Bill McInturff told NBC News earlier this year when it was looking at Obama's popularity. "When you have the most powerful person in the world [on the sidelines], that's a big deal."

If his approval rating recovers, Obama could get back in the game, to exhaust an already-exhausted metaphor. Campaign rallies in places that would now be inadvisable. Standing next to the Clintons in Little Rock; standing alongside Mary Landrieu in New Orleans; standing next to Alison Lundergan Grimes in Louisville. (OK, maybe not that last one.)


Jay-Z, Obama, and Bruce Springsteen during a campaign event in 2012. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Step four: Democrats rush to the polls.

A key problem for Democrats in midterm elections is turnout: how many of the Democrats' less-frequently-voting base of voters make it to the polls. There are debates about how important this is, but there's obviously no question that more Democrats getting to the polls means more votes for Democrats.

Republicans don't appear to be running strongly on the economy, but neither are Democrats at this point. If confidence in the economy and in the Democratic president improve, the Democrats have a new campaign theme — one that puts Republicans on their heels and could spur enthusiasm in the Democratic base.

Or, at least, could dampen enthusiasm among the Republicans' otherwise reliable voters.

Step five: Some sort of miraculous occurrence happens that reshifts dozens of Congressional districts and changes which Senate seats are being contested in November.

What, you thought we'd get out of this without a bit of deus ex machina? For the Democrats to retake the House at this point would require something far more dramatic than the jobs numbers breaking through the recession's ceiling. And the Senate races that Democrats are defending are in hostile territory, six years after close races won in the Democratic wave of 2008. Good jobs numbers don't change that.

So step five is this: magic. And that, esteemed readers, is how the new jobs numbers will mean the Democrats retake both chambers of Congress.

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He previously wrote for The Wire, the news blog of The Atlantic magazine. He has contributed to The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, The Daily, and the Huffington Post. Philip is based in New York City.
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