Good news on the economic front Wednesday morning: The Gross Domestic Product surged 4 percent in the second quarter of 2014, after dropping 2.1 percent in the first quarter. It's good economic news that lands on top of continued monthly job growth, meaning that President Obama's approval rating should move up and Democrats should enjoy vastly improved prospects in the 2014 election, right?
First, we'll apply the immediate and exhausted caveat about the new GDP figure. In the first quarter, the economy shrank 2.1 percent. A few weeks ago, though, that figure was at -2.9 percent; additional data allowed the Bureau of Economic Analysis to come up with a more accurate figure. That 2.9 percent, by the way, was revised downward from a -1 percent in May and from a 0.1 percent increase in the agency's first estimate. So the 4 percent increase will yield excellent headlines today, which won't hurt perceptions of the president. But as an indicator of the economy, invest in some grains of salt.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, there's no clear evidence that the rise or fall of the GDP correlate with a president's political fate.
Since he took office, it's hard to see a strong relationship between President Obama's approval and the fate of the economy. Here's a quarterly average of the percentage of Americans that approve of the job he's doing (from Gallup) versus the change in the GDP. This is apples and oranges, since "change" is a different metric from "approval," but it doesn't matter much, as we'll show.
At the beginning of 2012, Gallup itself made an interesting observation: for a few months, its assessment of economic confidence had tracked closely with Obama's job approval. Here are the two metrics (Gallup's full trend is here):
Gallup was referring to the first dozen weeks of 2012, and speculated that perhaps "Americans may not yet have held Obama accountable for the state of the economy" prior to that point, uncoupling the two. Interestingly, though, consumer confidence continued to increase past the 2012 election and into 2013 -- even as Obama's approval ratings, in part bolstered by non-stop campaign ads, started to sink.
We decided to figure out what the correlation was between the change in Obama's job approval on a weekly or quarterly basis, the change in economic confidence and the change in GDP. In short: It's all over the place.
There's a strong correlation between change in GDP and change in Obama approval in 2014, but that's only two data points: the change in GDP and approval in the first and second quarters. For the past few years, the relationship has been inverse, meaning that as GDP rises or falls, Obama's approval falls or rises, respectively. But not strongly.
Let's circle back to November. We know that presidential approval matters for candidates, but we also know that it's hard to see a link between these toppling numbers and that approval. For as much math as we do to try and suss out trends, campaigns are notoriously specific to the location and the moment and the candidates. If Obama conscripted every Democratic candidate to launch a ferocious counter-offensive against an invading horde of space aliens, it's likely that we could assume the Democrats would get a boost in November. (But even then there would be hold-outs.)
From a (possibly temporary) GDP bump, though? No reason to think that will happen.