If you’re looking for an answer to the question of whether last week’s events — Mitt Romney’s strong debate performance in Denver and Friday’s jobs report that showed unemployment dropping to 7.8 percent — change the trajectory of the presidential campaign, be patient and don’t rush to judgment.
There’s a lot of noise in the system right now. National polls were already tightening before either of last week’s events, after a September in which President Obama appeared to be opening up a real lead over his challenger. By the day of the debate, Obama and Romney were in a statistical tie nationally in almost all the new polls.
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Before the debate, however, Obama was looking strong in many of the battleground states — unusually strong, given what we know from past elections about how different states perform. Some state polls taken after the debate but before the unemployment number showed movement toward Romney. More evidence is needed to know what really may be changing.
There’s been a demonstrable effect on Romney’s campaign since the debate. Republicans once again believe they can win this election. Through much of September, Republican morale was sinking almost by the day, as one poll after another seemed to signal that Romney’s path to victory was narrowing so rapidly that his chances of winning appeared to be minimal.
Since Denver, however, Republicans are fired up. Romney may be no better a candidate on the stump than he was before the debate, but because of the debate he’s seen through a new lens, particularly by supporters who badly want to see Obama become a one-term president. That enthusiasm should count for something between now and Election Day. Organizers in Colorado, for example, said the day after the debate that were seeing an immediate impact in their volunteer enthusiasm. That is no doubt happening in every competitive state.
The impact of the jobless numbers is harder to measure. Breaking through the eight-percent barrier is an enormous psychological boost for the president. As my colleagues David Fahrenthold and Philip Rucker reported in Saturday’s paper, it robs Romney of one good argument — that Obama was unable to get the unemployment rate below that level for 43 straight months.
So the consecutive-months streak is now over. But the unemployment rate is still higher at this point in a campaign than it has been since the days of the New Deal. Reducing the jobless rate to below 8 percent is significant but the economy is still far from robust.
Ronald Reagan won reelection in 1984 with a September unemployment rate of 7.3 percent, after peaking at 10.8 percent. His most famous ad from that campaign said it was “morning in America, again.”
In this recent recession, the rate peaked at 10 percent. The big difference between Reagan’s economy and Obama’s is that Reagan could point to growth rates in the year before the election and in the first two quarters of 1984 (when attitudes about the economy begin to harden in the minds of voters) far above anything seen during Obama’s presidency.