By Dante Chinni
Going into 2012, the biggest shift in the electorate may be its feelings about who is best suited to handle the challenges of the economy.
Back in 2008, the Democratic Party was not only the choice on the poll question “which party would do a better job” with the economy, it was the choice by a wide margin. Urban, suburban and rural, young and old, rich and poor, geographic and demographic groups of all stripes chose the Democrats.
The picture is very different on the eve of the 2012 primary season, according to the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll. Republicans best Democrats on that same question with some very important voting blocs, including the elderly, the wealthy, middle income voters, white working class voters and suburbanites.
The Democratic Party’s fall since 2008 has been sharp: a 15 percentage point drop among 18- to 34-year-olds and those 65 and older, a 12-point drop among those who make more than $75,000 a year, an 11-point slide with white working class voters and a 14- point slip with suburbanites. That decline on the question of the economy with suburbanites, who tend to be more moderate swing voters, could be critical.
Even with the groups who still think the Democrats would be better at handling the economy — voters who make less than $30,000 a year and urban voters — the loss of support on the economy has been big: down 21 and 16 points respectively.
Meanwhile, the GOP has made gains in all those categories. Its sharpest increase on the economy question — a 10 percentage point gain in support — came from those over 65 years old. But there were notable increases elsewhere, particularly with suburbanites where Republican economic support was up some 6 percentage points and with those making more than $75,000 a year where the GOP’s support grew by 7 percentage points.
Still, look at those numbers and you will notice a big difference between them.
The Democrats’ loss of support on the economy has been enormous – double-digits in nearly all the demographic and geographic groups in the above chart. The Republican gains have been smaller – generally in the single digits. So what about the other voters who have lost faith in the Democrats? Who do they think is better equipped to handle the issue most people think will dominate the campaign? Nobody.
Look at the chart above and you’ll see one group stands out with most demographic groups and with voters at large: people who say both parties would do equally well or neither would do well. (They’re represented in yellow.)
Four years into a prolonged period of economic hardship, many voters, it seems, have decided that neither party is particularly well-equipped to handle they see as the biggest issue in their lives right now. For many people, frustration has set in.
The portion of those answering “both parties” or “neither party” on the economic question has grown the most among the young and the poor – those under 30 and those who make less than $30,000 a year. Those are voters out of college who can’t find a job and those who don’t have a lot of savings. But look at the line chart in the graphic above and you’ll see the number of people answering both parties/neither party on the economy is the biggest slice of the whole, some 38%.
That’s not a complete surprise. At Patchwork Nation, the demographic/geographic breakdown of counties we use to analyze the country, we focus on the differences in how different places are handling the economic turbulence. And some of those differences – like the experiences of rural agricultural counties and big city counties – are considerable.
But the depth and breadth of the current economic troubles reach everywhere. Consider the number of bankruptcies last year per 1,000 people, shown on the map below.Some places have largely managed to avoid the troubles, like Texas and the Dakotas, but the pain is pretty widespread. And in the 12 county types Patchwork Nation examines, only a few managed to avoid the worst of the bankruptcy bug. When you look at numbers like those the lack of faith in the two parties is not a big surprise. Both parties have had chances at running the government in recent years and the economic situation has not improved.
There is little question the GOP is in the stronger position on the issue of the economy going into 2012. The gains they have made since 2008 are broad-based and Democratic declines have been steep. Given a chance to flip the numbers in this survey, Democrats would certainly say, “yes.”
But the electorate increasingly looks unpredictable and the economy may be the principal reason why. It’s easy and logical to think next year’s elections will be about the economy and history says the Republicans, as the out of power party, are set to do well the issue. With frustration as a driving factor, however, the picture is much more complicated than usual.