Jobs Report: Who Cares?

Not the people who actually matter: voters. Political scientists say pundits and pontificators are missing the fact that most Americans have other things to worry about.

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Today’s monthly jobs report release brought with it the usual round of prognosticating and tea-leaf reading from pundits and journalists. Bad for Obama? A boon for Romney?

But there’s one group—a pretty important group—that doesn’t care about the numbers: voters.

That’s according to political scientists like Michael Lewis-Beck.

“Journalists, the media, they have to fill the space and pages so they tout all these new numbers, and the average voter doesn’t follow these numbers as closely as the media makes you believe,” says the University of Iowa professor.

After the release of May’s disappointing figures, which showed the lowest number of new jobs created in 2012 and fueled media reports about a “stalled economy,” Gallup asked respondents whether they thought the news was good or bad. Just as many Americans said the jobs numbers were “mixed” as said they were “bad”. Further, Gallup found, there was no change in “Americans’ perceptions of whether the U.S. economy is getting better or getting worse.”

Charles Franklin, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who is currently a visiting professor at Marquette, says it goes back to one of the most robust findings in American political science: the average American voter might not be that well informed—or, for that matter, interested. “For those of us who do public affairs and politics for a living, there’s a huge gap between what we think of as levels of normal awareness and what average citizens who actually have lives and are doing other things, what their level of focus is.”

Big, epochal events filter down to the general population, but that’s not the case for most types of news, said Franklin. “For things like today’s jobs report, only the most engaged are really following that with an eye to what it means for politics.”
In fact, according to the Gallup poll, people who say they follow the news closely were more likely to describe May’s jobs numbers as negative.

And despite pundits’ obsession over what the report means for Obama’s reelection chances, the people who are actually aware of the jobs report and can interpret its numbers “are precisely the people who are sufficiently partisan and ideological and engaged, that they’re unlikely to be changed by it,” added Franklin.

Undecided voters, on the other hand, “tend to be the least attentive to what’s going on in the news,” says Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University.

Given pundits’ obsession with undecideds, it makes little sense to home in on jobs reports as a meaningful political metric, says University of Iowa’s Lewis-Beck.
“Many journalists and many citizens think that voter opinion is highly malleable, and that it will change” based on new information, he says, but “voters’ opinions are highly, highly—I have to underline that—highly resistant to change.”

So how do voters form judgments about the economy? It can be a difficult question to unravel given the myriad factors at work. “Ultimately, how a voter responds to the economy is something in their heads, so it’s a judgment, and it’s not a judgment based on any one objective number,” says Lewis-Beck. “They don’t just look at the growth rate or just look at inflation or just look at unemployment. They look at what’s going on in the world around them in the economy: Are their friends and neighbors getting hired? Are they getting raises? And also they look at the newspaper headlines and see what people say on the news.” In other words, it’s a rather complex process of distillation.

However they form their judgments, voters are far from completely ignorant when it comes to the country’s economic health. In a paper examining how Americans perceive the economy that they presented at a political science conference in March, Lewis-Beck and his colleagues report that voters are rather well attuned to the general economic direction of things. “Perceptions of economic trends clearly and accurately track actual changes in GDP and unemployment,” they write in the abstract. And voters can see past the partisan fog to what’s really going on: “Bias due to partisanship is minor.” 

In other words, as Lewis-Beck puts it, while voters may not get nearly as lost in the weeds as pundits, “It’s hard to spin the fundamentals on the economy.”