With all eyes on health care ruling, voters’ mixed views on the economy is still the big issue

by Ryan Streeter on June 28, 2012. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

We all know voters’ views of the economy have a strong effect on election outcomes. And this is why predicting the outcome of the presidential election in November is impossible right now.

If you dig around in last week’s WSJ/NBC poll, you can see this point clearly:

  • In June last year, 29% said the economy would improve in the coming year, while 30% said it would get worse. Today, 35% said it will improve while 20% said it will get worse, a notable movement in opinion that favors Obama.
  • When asked about whether recent events have made them more or less optimistic about the economy, those responding “more optimistic” dropped from 46% in January to 43% today, while those saying “less optimistic” rose from 44% to 49% – a trend favoring Romney.
  • It’s also interesting that compared to October 2010, the eve of the Tea Party’s big election, the percentage of voters saying they trust the Democratic Party to deal with the economy has fallen. On the other hand, the percentage of people saying that the economy is something Obama inherited has actually risen since then. 
  • It’s also interesting that the traditional advantage the Democrats have when voters are asked which party they trust to help the middle class (Dems lead the GOP 45% to 26%) vanishes when people are asked which party represents the opportunity to move up the economic ladder (the parties tie at 34%). 

These numbers suggest that the economic landscape is sending mixed signals to voters, and that some people simultaneously believe the economy is improving while admitting that recent events make them doubt that belief. 

The numbers also suggest that the GOP will do better to focus on themes related to upward mobility and opportunity than trying to steal the middle class as an issue back from Democrats.

The fallout from the Supreme Court decision – namely how Team Obama handles the ruling and spin the more popular parts of the law (assuming some of them remain) – will affect voter behavior for sure, but it’s still worth remembering that where voters stand amidst their shifting views on the economy in November will have a greater effect on the outcome. And given these numbers, we can see why that outcome is as hard as ever to predict.