AP's Wiseman Weakly Spins 'Jobless Trend' and Not Jobless Rate as Predicting Prez Election Results

Even with recent "improvements" which are still weak when compared to other post-World War II recoveries and which, as shown yesterday (at NewsBusters; at BizzyBlog), are less substantive than December's two major reported numbers (unemployment rate of 8.5% and seasonally adjusted job additions of 200,000) would indicate, it seems fairly likely that the nation's unemployment rate will be higher than it has been on the eve of any presidential election since World War II.

Thus, Paul Wiseman of the Associated Press, aka the Administration's Press, felt it necessary to show that what matters isn't the unemployment rate, but instead the rate's trend. In the process, he mischaracterized the state of the economy under Ronald Reagan in 1983 and 1984, ignoring the roaring economic growth which occurred during those two years, and gave only one sentence to a statistic -- number of jobs added or lost -- which has become as important as the jobless rate, if not moreso, in the intervening 28 years:


Unemployment is higher than it's been going into any election year since World War II.

But history shows that won't necessarily stop President Barack Obama from reclaiming the White House.

In a presidential election year, the unemployment trend can be more important to an incumbent's chances than the unemployment rate.

Going back to 1956 no incumbent president has lost when unemployment fell over the two years leading up to the election. And none has won when it rose.

The picture is similar in the 12 months before presidential elections: Only one of nine incumbent presidents (Gerald Ford in 1976) lost when unemployment fell over that year, and only one (Dwight Eisenhower in 1956) was re-elected when it rose.

Those precedents bode well for Obama. Unemployment was 9.8 percent in November 2010, two years before voters decide whether Obama gets to stay in the White House. It was down to 8.7 percent in November 2011, a year before the vote. It fell to 8.5 percent in December and is expected to fall further by Election Day.

... Obama can take comfort in President Ronald Reagan's experience. In November 1982, the economy was in the last month of a deep recession, and unemployment was 10.8 percent, the highest since the Great Depression. A year later, unemployment was down to 8.5 percent. By November 1984, it was still a relatively high 7.2 percent, but the downward trend was unmistakable. Reagan was re-elected that month in a 59-41 percent landslide.

"A sense that things are on the mend is really important to people," says Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center.

... But unemployment has now dropped four months in a row. And the economy added 1.6 million jobs in 2011, the most since 2006.

Wiseman also cited a number of non-economic factors which have weighed heavily on past elections, including how President Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon might have hurt him in 1976, how the 1980 Iranian hostage crisis damaged Jimmy Carter, and how Ross Perot's third-party effort thwarted Bush 41 in 1992 (he could have added 1996 on that count, given that Bill Clinton also failed to win a majority of the popular vote that year).

The economic lead-up to the 1984 campaign is where Wiseman's attempt at a historical parallel falls apart. Just a sampler of stats which could go on and on:

  • On the employment side, voters were willing to forgive the relatively high unemployment rate not only because it was trending downward, but because the economy was adding hundreds of thousands of jobs a month. The economy added an average of 312,000 jobs a month during the 22 months before Election Day, the population-adjusted equivalent of over 400,000 today. That included an initial report of 350,000 in October 1984, the final employment report released before that year's election (note the ruthless bias in the Washington Post coverage at the link).
  • Meanwhile, in Obamaville, it wasn't until the 16th month after the recession officially ended that the economy began consistently adding jobs. Since then, monthly job additions have averaged 137,000. The economy under Reagan began adding jobs in January 1983, the second month after the recession's official end.
  • As to economic growth, after all subsequent revisions, it averaged over 7% during the last seven full quarters leading up to the 1984 election. In Obamaville, even if economic growth averages 3% during the next four reported quarters (4Q11 through 3Q12), the seven-quarter average will only be 2.2%.
  • Reagan was derided at the time for running budget deficits which, accompanied by lower taxes and regulatory restraint, generated explosive employment and economic growth. In Obamaville, despite piling up deficits during the past three fiscal years which have totaled $4 trillion, we have seen the worst post-recession performance since World War II.

How Wiseman believes that Obama can take heart from 1984 is a mystery. The unemployment rate may be trending down, but a) It's still much higher than 1984; b) Post-trough job growth adjusted for population has been about one-third of that seen under Reagan; and c) Economic growth has been so lackluster that the economy as a whole is barely bigger than it was at the end of 2007, while the private sector as of September 30, 2011 was still actually smaller. That's four really bad (for Obama) comparison metics (unemployment rate, job growth, economic growth, deficits) and one possibly good one (unemployment rate trending down).

(Barely) nice try, Paul. No sale.

Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.

Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer is a contributing editor for NewsBusters.