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Voters Care Most About the Economy. Why Don't This Year's Candidates?

Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla

The most enduring myth of the 2010 midterms is that Democrats were voted out of office because of the Affordable Care Act. In fact, voters were angry about the weak economic recovery. A CNN poll days before the election confirmed this: 52 percent of Americans chose the economy as the most important issue facing the country compared to just 8 percent who chose health care.

Fast forward to 2014: The economy has improved substantially over the past four years, but many Americans haven’t seen a recovery in their paychecks. Poll after poll has shown the economy as the most important issue facing the country. Given this, you might expect the economy to be a focal point in campaigns this year, as it was in 2010.  But it hasn't been. Outside of typical platitudes about struggling families, both Republican and Democratic candidates have largely avoided the issue.

Why? The answer says more about the state of the economy today than our political climate.

The economy’s absence as a campaign issue is most apparent in Colorado, where the unemployment rate is 4.7 percent and job growth increased 2.8 percent from September 2013 to September 2014. GDP growth in 2013 was a healthy 3.8 percent. Despite this, Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper has not made the issue a feature of his campaign. When he has spoken about it, he has used a cautionary tone. “It is going to be a rising tide. It never affects everyone the same,” he told CBS4 in October. “There are things we need to do.” Hickenlooper’s silence may be explained by the weak wage growth in the state. Average wages increased by just 1.1 percent from September 2013 to September 2014.

While the economy isn’t strong enough for Hickenlooper to tout on the campaign trail, it isn’t weak enough for Republicans to use as well. “More people have jobs but people aren’t doing a whole better than last year or the year before,” said Seth Masket, a political science professor at the University of Denver. “It’s not necessarily a big winner for the Democrats. It’s not necessarily a big winner for Republicans either.” Voters don’t trust Democrats to handle the economy, but they have equally little faith in Republicans as well. That gives both sides an incentive to avoid the issue.

The same dynamic exists in the contentious Colorado senate race. Mark Udall, the Democratic incumbent, has largely run a single-issue campaign focused on reproductive rights while Representative Cory Gardner has tried to tie Udall to the president. “The only way the economy has really been in this race is indirectly,” said Peter Hanson, a political science professor at the University of Denver. “Gardner has been talking about the Affordable Care Act to some extent, and how it poses a threat to small businesses and individuals.”

This isn’t just a Coloradoan phenomenon. It’s a national one. The economy isn’t a big part of political campaigns this year. “[The economy] hasn’t really been talked about a lot by either candidate, at least not in their advertising,” said Joseph Giammo, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, about the Arkansas senate race. “It’s really been a mirror what you’ve seen nationally in a lot of these races where you’ve got the Republican candidate trying to tie the Democratic candidate to the president and his policies and the Democratic candidate saying that the Republican candidate is too extreme.” Steven Greene, a political science professor at North Carolina State, said almost the same thing about the North Carolina senate race. “It’s interesting in that it’s really not been a particular focus of the race,” he said. “The attack on [Senator Kay Hagan] is all about tying her to Obama. Insofar as dissatisfaction with Obama is dissatisfaction with the economy, I think surely it’s part of it.”

In that sense, the economy is a major part of the midterms. It just isn’t a major part of the actual campaigns. The one economic issue that Democrats have run on this year is the minimum wage. Republican candidates in North Carolina, Iowa, Alaska and other states have faced a political backlash for their opposition to a federal minimum wage hike, which is popular among Democrat and Republican voters. In response, candidates like Tom Cotton and Dan Sullivan, the Republican candidates in Arkansas and Alaska, respectively, have come out in support of referendums on the ballot to raise the state minimum wage. Thom Tillis and Joni Ernst, the GOP candidates in North Carolina and Iowa, have both had to back track on statements they made about the minimum wage. Democratic candidates, on the other hand, have tried to highlight the difference between them and the Republican Party on the issue. (The exception here is Mark Pryor, the Democratic incumbent in Arkansas, who doesn’t support raising the federal minimum wage.)

Still, the subpar economic conditions linger in voters’ minds as they head to the ballot box. Even in states where the economy is stronger than the national average—such as Colorado and Iowa—that strength does not translate into more votes for the Democrats. In fact, Colorado and Iowa are two purple states that Democrats thought they had a good chance to hold this cycle, but neither is looking good for the party. “People still think the national economy’s on the wrong track and at least [Bruce Braley’s] being held up with President Obama in that,” said Christopher Larimer, a political science professor at the University of Northern Iowa, referring to the Democratic Iowa congressman running for Senate. “The [Iowa] state economy is doing fine. That’s not what voters are thinking about when they’re casting their ballots for the senate race.”

Over the past few months, the economy has strengthened. Last week, the Commerce Department reported that the economy grew at a 3.5 percent annualized rate in the third quarter. Consumer confidence is at its highest level since July 2007. But that hasn’t translated into wage gains for most of the country. And until that happens, Americans are going to have a dim view of the economy—and will blame Democrats for it. Republicans have that advantage Tuesday, even if they aren’t talking about it.