Are You Better Off?

During the Republican convention this year, Republican speakers made a point of asking whether Americans were better off now than they were four years ago. In some ways, that's a funny question to be asking. Obviously, it harkens back to Reagan's successful 1980 takedown of an incumbent president, but the answer is notably more complicated today. The economy was mid-collapse four years ago and clearly isn't today, and we know that voters tend to focus on more recent economic events when deciding for whom to vote. So why make this about a four-year window when we know people aren't too happy with the way things are going right now?

Some recent questions in a YouGov/Model Politics survey help shed some light on this question. Respondents were asked to evaluate the current state of the economy. Unsurprisingly, evaluations break down strongly by candidate preference, with Obama supporters highly likely to see things as improving and Romney supporters highly likely to see conditions as worsening:

The poll also included a question asking respondents, "Compared to four years ago, has the nation's economy gotten better or gotten worse?" Responses to this question were similar, but not exactly the same. Note, for example, how Obama supporters respond to the two questions. The same percentage feel that the economy has gotten better lately and over the last four years. But about five percent more say that the economy has gotten worse over the past four years than say that the economy is getting worse now. 

The story is roughly identical for Romney supporters. Virtually none of them think the economy has improved, but about five percent more say things have gotten worse over the past four years than say it's getting worse now. 

Also, let's not forget those who aren't committed to the two major party candidates. Just looking at those who say they're undecided or supporting another candidate, we see roughly the same trend. In this case, roughly 15 percent more say things have gotten worse over the past four years than say that they're getting worse now.

Seen in this light, the Republicans' attempt to make this election a referendum on the past four years was a pretty smart move. People across the board -- and particularly undecided voters -- have a dimmer view of the past four years than they do of current conditions.

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Seth Masket

Seth Masket is associate professor and chair of the political science department at the University of Denver. He is the author of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2009). He researches and teaches on parties, state legislatures, campaigns and elections, and social networks.