The New York Times has a piece today pushing the factoid–and even for those who hate the term, this does seem to be a good case for its use–that since FDR no president has been reelected when unemployment was over 7.2%.
Some statistics are useful. Some are almost devoid of usefulness, and this one is a case of the latter:
- Since FDR only Eisenhower, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Clinton and the two Bush’s have been elected president and then sought reelection. It’s hard to draw big conclusions from a sample of seven.
- Since FDR, only three times has a president been up for reelection when the unemployment rate was as high as 7.2%. Two of those presidents–Carter and Bush I–lost. The other, Reagan, won. For those who weren’t counting, that a sample of three.
- When presidents have sought reelection when the unemployment rate was over 7.2 and lost, the winner prevailed with 50% (Reagan) and 43% (Clinton). Maybe, just maybe, there was a third-party factor that was at least as significant to the incumbent’s loss as the unemployment rate?
Pulling one statistic out of context is usually unilluminating. On twitter, Seth Masket had some fun at the NYT’s expense, pointing out that “no president since FDR has won a second term while waging war with Germany from a wheelchair.” Ya know, I hadn’t thought about it that way before, but he’s right! On his blog he also showed how little correlation there is with unemployment rates and and incumbent president’s reelection. He’s right to claim that the bigger political factor is income growth (and on that score things aren’t great for Obama).
Steve Benen looked at the case of FDR to show the silliness of the arbitrary 7.2% figure. When FDR was reelected in 1936 the unemployment rate was what for today would be a staggering 17%, but that was down from 22% when he was first elected. What mattered was not that things weren’t good or bad on some continuum, but that things were getting better. Steve doesn’t mention the cases of Carter and Bush I, but in both of those cases unemployment (and the economy in general) were getting worse.
The best argument against the magic of the arbitrary 7.2% unemployment figure is the case of the one president since FDR who won his reelection when unemployment was at 7.2%: Ronald Reagan. If unemployment at or slightly above 7.2% was determinative, then Reagan would have either lost or won by a narrow margin. Of course, Reagan didn’t just win, he won with the biggest electoral college victory in US history.
Unemployment is obviously a serious policy problem for the US, and its importance to Americans shouldn’t be dismissed. Furthermore, it certainly will help Obama’s reelection prospects if the job situation significantly improves between now and November 2012. It’s a disgrace that the Senate Republicans, using the filibuster, were able to limit the amount appropriated in the 2009 stimulus package and that Washington hasn’t done enough about jobs in the time since. But as a matter of electoral analysis, the unemployment rate, taken out of context, tells us little or nothing about the 2012 election…except that even some of the better newspapers are capable of pushing facile analysis that may sound good as long as you don’t think about it.