As he campaigns across the battleground states, Mitt Romney has run into dissonance from a surprising corner. Republican governors are offering a different assessment of the economy than that of their party’s presumptive presidential nominee.
Romney’s message has been straightforward and consistent over the past year. In his formulation, the economy is still weak, unemployment and underemployment are at intolerably high levels, and President Obama’s policies have not made things better faster.
But listen to Republican governors and there is a different message. Whether it is in Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin or other potential swing states, many GOP governors talk of the improvements they’re seeing. As Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker put it on Monday, with Romney standing next to him on a stage in Janesville, “We’ve turned things around in Wisconsin.”
On Wednesday, Obama campaign officials held a background briefing in Washington. Among the points they made was that Romney’s campaign strategy is predicated on bad economic news. As one of the campaign’s most senior officials put it, “They’re putting all their chips on worsening economic news. They’re rooting for it.”
Then came a news report Thursday that the Romney team had asked Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) not to tout the improvements in his state’s economy, which appeared to confirm that the GOP candidate, if not rooting for bad news, was attempting to suppress good news. Scott’s office soon denied the report.
In fact, Romney has found a way to try to meld the two seemingly contradictory messages. He says that the policies of Republican governors, in contrast to those of some Democratic governors, are helping to fix the economies of those GOP-led states, and that the federal government could benefit from a dose of the same medicine.
During an appearance in Davenport, Iowa, Romney credited the state’s low unemployment rate — 5.1 percent — to the leadership of Republican Gov. Terry Branstad. GOP governors nationwide, he said, are making “tough choices” and, as a result, their states “are seeing real progress.”
He compared those states with California — led by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown — where the unemployment rate is still in the double digits and where lawmakers face another big hole in their budget. “We have a president who’s put us on a path to California and Europe,” he said.
Walker echoed that theme Monday when, after pointing to the improvements in his state, he said, “It’s time to elect a leader who can turn things around for America.”
This is the contrast many Republicans hoped to make this year after the 2010 midterm elections, the distinction between GOP governors following a small-government, pro-business philosophy vs. a Democratic president who they say has put his faith in government over the market. For Romney, attaching himself to GOP governors offers the additional benefit of helping to keep his distance from unpopular congressional Republicans.
But is there a clear pattern that shows that states led by Republican governors since 2010 are doing significantly better than states governed by Democrats? And who should get the credit for an improving economy in a state, the governor or the president? Those questions will frame the debate between now and November.
Take Romney’s California example. Until Brown took over, the state was led by a Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and a Democratic legislature, and faced economic problems and political gridlock.
It’s true that California’s unemployment rate is now well above the national average: 10.8 percent in May, according to preliminary estimates. And Brown has asked for new taxes to close a budget shortfall. But neighboring Nevada, which has been hit hard by the housing foreclosure crisis and is led by Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval (who succeeded a Republican governor), has an even higher unemployment rate: 11.6 percent.
Among 12 possible battleground states, four have jobless rates above the national average. Three — Florida, Michigan and Nevada — are in the hands of Republican governors. One — North Carolina — is governed by a Democrat. The remaining eight are below the national average. Republican governors hold six, Democrats two. But at the time of the 2010 elections, the same four were above the national average and the same nine were below.
Michigan clearly has experienced recent economic improvement — after a party switch in the governor’s mansion. The month Obama was elected, as the economy was cascading downward, the state’s unemployment rate was at 9.9 percent. It rose to a peak of 14.2 percent in August 2009. By the time Republican Gov. Rick Snyder was elected in November 2010, it had fallen to 11.6 percent. Today it stands at 8.5 percent. That 27 percent drop in the unemployment rate since Snyder’s election is the largest in the nation among the battleground states.
But given the size of the decrease between the peak in 2009 and the level it reached by the time of Snyder’s election, how much credit goes to Obama’s 2009 bailout of the auto industry — a policy Romney objected to — as opposed to the business-friendly policies Snyder has put in place in the past 18 months?
Three other states have had their unemployment rates drop by 20 percent or more since the 2010 elections: Florida, Minnesota and Ohio. In Florida, Scott succeeded fellow Republican Jeb Bush, so there has not been a dramatic change in policies in the state. In Minnesota, Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton replaced Republican Tim Pawlenty.
In Ohio, Republican Gov. John Kasich replaced Democrat Ted Strickland. Kasich says the improving economic picture there has less to do with the auto bailout than with other industries his policies have helped to attract. But Kasich was dealt a rebuke from voters last fall when they rejected changes in collective-bargaining rights for state workers that he had signed into law.
Both Kasich and Romney are right when they talk about the economy in Ohio. Things have improved. The unemployment rate has fallen from a peak of 10.6 percent to its current 7.3 percent. But that doesn’t make Ohio’s economy vibrant.
Unemployment rates are only one measure of the economy and therefore a limited way to make comparisons between Republican and Democratic governance. What the two parties have done to bring their budgets into balance through spending cuts, new taxes and efforts to trim public employee benefits is another.
Romney has bet his campaign on the premise that economic anxiety and dissatisfaction with Obama are deep enough to win him the election. He must hope that when Republican governors point to improvements in their states, the voters don’t decide that Obama deserves more of the credit. That’s the narrow channel through which Romney will have to navigate.
For previous columns by Dan Balz, go to postpolitics.com.