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Briefing and Opinion
October 15, 2004

THE JOURNAL EDITORIAL REPORT's correspondent Stan Bernard travels to Hartford, Connecticut, to ask residents, local business owners and government officials the question asked by Ronald Reagan 24 years ago in the second presidential debate:

"Are you better off than you were four years ago?"

President Bush, John Kerry

How a voter feels about the economy in this election year will most likely have a far greater impact on how he or she votes than the realities of the economy -- on which there is little agreement.

"Our economic plan is working...Our economy is recovering..."

"They're seven million jobs short...This is the worst jobs economy since Herbert Hoover."

George Marcus
George Marcus, a professor of political science at Williams, suggests that voters will likely go with their gut. "People have an intuitive sense about the world they're operating in that tells them whether the world is safe and comfortable and familiar. And we label that feeling, that inner intuitive sense, anxiety. If they're anxious about the world they're operating in, their habits, their ideology, their partisanship no longer controls how they're gonna vote. And then everything's up for grabs."

Downtown Hartford is undergoing a renaissance. It features a new convention center and commercial and residential properties. Despite this, even the most optimistic Hartford residents we spoke with are troubled by the economy.James Verano When asked if he was optimistic about the future, restaurant owner James Verano said absolutely. However, he adds, "before the convention center is done, the new civic center, all the apartments that are coming on line, we're probably still one, two years out minimum before that first dollar hits my cash register. So right now getting through that period, this is a high-cost business and we are watching it very closely...and feeling a little uneasy."

Connecticut's State Labor Economist John Tirinzonie keeps tracks of the number and quality of the jobs in the state. Tirinzonie says Connecticut is not better off. "In Connecticut, four years ago was really when we were at the peak of our employment levels. We're down over 50,000."Fred Carstensen

Fred Carstensen at the Center for Economic Analysis at the University of Connecticut, concurs. "Connecticut has had no job growth since 1989. And yet our income has gone up very, very significantly in aggregate. What's happening is that we have now got an environment in which we see the economy growing, probably three and a half, four percent, but creating maybe one percent job growth."

Local resident Susan Reynolds says finding a permanent job has been hard. The unemployed mother of two teens says she often sends out up to 100 resumes a day, with little luck. "It's really tough right now. The jobs really aren't there. They're gone."

On the flip side, Verano is finding that he is getting better quality applicants who are willing to accept less money than in previous times. "I remember back a couple of years ago you put an ad in the paper and sometimes you wouldn't even get one response. And I was paying more than I ever had," he says. "Now, if I need help I'm almost reluctant to put an ad in because I know I'm going to be deluged with 150 applicants."

For those people who are more concerned about the economy than other issues, it ultimately comes down to jobs and income.

Christine Peterson
"The surplus of candidates is really tremendous in comparison to what it used to be," says Christine Peterson, an executive recruiter at the Hartford Insurance Company. These candidates, she adds, are willing to accept less money, but do have their limits. "There is a certain cut off they won't go below. However, they are taking less dollars for a different type of skill set and a different type of opportunity."

For some, the change has meant much more than a simple pay cut says attorney John Gale. "There are certainly people for whom that unemployment picture has led to rather dramatic results. They are losing their houses and they are being forced to file bankruptcy. In many cases it's not that they are unemployed, but that they are underemployed. They lost their job and now they are working at a Wal-Mart or a Lowe's, and maybe making half of what they were making before."

Susan Reynolds

Recent statistics out of the Census Bureau say the rich are getting richer and among the poor, more are falling below the poverty line. For Susan Reynolds the downward shift has been incremental, "Four years ago I was making 15 dollars an hour," she says. "I got a permanent job. That went down to 13. I'm back temping again. The jobs aren't there. It's down to 11 an hour. I'm sure I'll have to take another step back."

This level of job anxiety is just the kind of catalyst to cause people to break from previous political practices. "Most of us have a common way of making decisions," Marcus says. "We buy the same cereal, the same brand of gas. These are our habits. Politics is a habit. And so habit drives most people's voting, except when they get anxious. When they get anxious, people stop relying on their habitual cues."
past elections

It's happened before; the successful Ronald Reagan run against the Jimmy Carter economy in 1980, and the Clinton run against the senior Bush in '92, the years of "It's the economy stupid," voter defections from one party to the other ran as high as thirty percent. Democrats are measuring the anxiety level this year looking for a repeat of that pattern.