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What Voters Talk About When They Talk About the Economy

As Patchwork Nation often notes, the diversity of communities in the United States makes it difficult to identify a single economic story. National GDP and unemployment numbers are not encouraging, but no one in American experiences those U.S. averages – in some place the unemployment rate is scarily high, in others it is more middling.

But as midterm elections approach, a look at recent poll data from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press shows views about the economy that seem fairly uniform across Patchwork Nation’s nine congressional district types. And it is not positive.

In a question about the economic recovery, half the people or more in eight of the nine district types say that “it will be a long time before the economy recovers.” Some of those district types lean left and some lean right, voters in some are relatively well-to-do and some are poor. The dour mood, in other words, covers most of the country.

Dig a little deeper, however, and you see how those views don’t necessarily follow how people feel about their own personal economic situation and they don’t follow how people in those nine types say they are leaning with their votes – voters in four of the types say they are leaning toward Democratic candidates voters in other five are leaning toward the GOP.

Taken together the numbers show the economy is without question weighing heavily on people’s minds, but its impact on the election in November may be harder to predict.

It’s not me, it’s them

The numbers come from a September Pew poll and like any poll it was a snapshot of opinion at that moment in time, but there’s little reason to believe attitudes on the economy have shifted dramatically since it was conducted. And looking at the numbers there is something of a disconnect between the way voters in out district types feel about their own economic situation and how they feel about the national economic direction.

Look, for instance, at the wealthy, largely suburban districts we call Established Wealth. In those 82 districts, 53 percent of the voters say they think a recovery is a “long time” off. But when asked about their own economic situation only 20 percent see it as “poor.”

In the 17 largely sparsely-populated districts we call Small Town America, nearly 64 percent of the voters say any recovery is a “long time” away, but only 21 percent describe their personal economic situation as “poor.”

And interestingly, the 21 heavily African-American districts we call Old Diversity offer the reverse view. Only 40 percent of the voters there say a recovery is a “long time” off, but 34 percent of those same people say their individual economic situation is “poor.” That’s the lowest percentage of voters who see the tough times continuing for a long time, but the highest percentage who say they themselves are suffering.

Politically, these types are divided on where their voters may be going. While individual races may differ, the poll shows that broadly speaking: Voters in those Established Wealth locations seem ready to split their votes; Voters in Small Town America districts are leaning toward their GOP options; And voters in Old Diversity districts lean solidly toward Democrats.

The Politicized Economy

Why do these numbers look like this?

Maybe voters believe the current economic troubles are bigger than anything the government can do about them. Maybe voters see a disconnect between their personal situation and the broader economy.

Both those things may play some role, but pulling back a little there is the larger issue of the politicizing of the economy as an issue. In the most politically polarized places in America talking about “the economy” has in some ways become shorthand for talking about the Presidency of Barack Obama.

So the two communities that give Obama the highest approval ratings in the Pew poll (over 62 percent), the Old Diversity and New Diversity district types, are also the types that feel the sunniest about the national economic recovery despite the fact that people in those places don’t feel especially good about their personal economic situation.

The reverse is true in Small Town America districts, where Mr. Obama scores very low (only 36 percent approval) and people feel worst about the national economic picture, but people’s personal economic situations are not as bad as others.

At the same time, there are some places that apply different rules to how they see the economic situation. The Wired and Educated districts, for example see their personal economic situation as pretty decent (fewer than 20 percent see it as “poor”) but 50 percent of the voters think the recovery is still a “long time” from now. And still, 60 percent approve of the way Obama is handling his job and voters are leaning heavily toward Democratic candidates for November.

The point is despite how important voters say the economy is as an issue, beware drawing too many conclusions from broad economic polls.

The U.S. economic situation is particularly difficult to understand in 2010. Voters are unsure or who or what is to blame for the hard times. Some see the current conditions as reinforcing their particular political stance. And some see it as beyond politics.

Perhaps more to the point, even with all the economic unease in the air, voters don’t seem confident either party has offered a plan to set things right.

*Dante Chinni is the director of the Patchwork Nation project. *

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