During the past fifteen years, Republicans have consistently held a rosier view of economic conditions than Democrats, but at no time has this perceptions gap been greater than in the past year, according to a historical analysis of weekly data from The Washington Post-ABC News consumer confidence survey.
The overall Consumer Comfort Index currently stands at -9, matching its long term average. Among Republicans, the index rises to 28. Among Democrats, it is -35, more than 60 points lower.
To translate this into less abstract terms, in the survey conducted last weekend roughly six in ten Republicans rated the state of the national economy as "excellent" or "good," compared to two in ten Democrats. Three in four GOP respondents rated their own personal finances the same way, compared to half of Democrats. And nearly twice as many Republicans as Democrats said now was a good time to buy things.
If these consumer attitudes converted directly into consumption patterns, Red state stores would now be as bare as fields after a locust swarm. So why aren't they?
"My take on partisan differences on the economic outlook is that politicians have become increasingly contentious over the past several years on almost every conceivable topic. So differences on the economic outlook have more to do with politics than economics," said University of Michigan economist E. Philip Howrey in an e-mail. Howrey has studied the role of consumer confidence indexes in economic forecasting.
To some extent the partisan differences likely reflect an underlying income disparity between the two groups. A Post-ABC News poll conducted in mid-March found that about six in ten Democrats said their annual household income was less than $50,000 per year, compared to four in ten Republicans. And not surprisingly, those making less money are less sanguine about economic conditions.
But other polling suggests that the political divide survives even after taking income into account. In a pre-election survey conducted at the height of partisan division last summer, 70 percent of Republicans in households making less than $50,000 per year described the economy as "excellent" or "good," compared to only 22 percent of Democrats in the same income bracket.
The gap between Republican and Democratic views of the economy shrank when there was a Democrat sitting in the Oval Office. During the eight years of the Clinton presidency Democrats lagged by an average of only 15 points on the overall index, compared to the 31-point difference during George H.W. Bush's presidency and a whopping 52-point average difference during the current president's tenure.
The gap closed in the nineties because Democrats' views of the economy brightened in the first two years of Clinton's tenure.
The reverse was true this past election season: GOP-identifiers gained an average of 23 points on the index from 2003 to 2004, while Democrats didn't budge. This caused the gap between the two parties to reach its highest point since 1990.
As Howrey suggests, differing views at the grassroots level could reflect differing economic interpretations at the top of the ticket. Last fall, for example, Republican faithful heard President Bush tout the fact that nearly 1.7 million new jobs had been created in the past year, while at the same time Democratic listeners heard John F. Kerry claim that Bush was likely to be the first president since Herbert Hoover to preside over a net job loss.
It is not clear whether partisan divides also exist within the nation's two longest running consumer confidence indexes. The Conference Board, whose Consumer Confidence Index dates back to 1967, has never collected respondent's party identification, and the director of the University of Michigan's Surveys of Consumers could not be reached for comment.
The Post-ABC Consumer Comfort Index is a rolling average based on telephone interviews with 1,000 randomly selected adults over the previous four-week period. The overall index, which is based on responses to three core questions, can range from -100 to +100. The latest results are based on interviews conducted through March 20. Margin of sampling error for the results of individual questions is plus or minus three percentage points, and somewhat larger for party subsamples.