In the only general election debate between President Ronald Reagan and President Jimmy Carter, the former candidate asked one of the most important questions ever posed to the voting public: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” Days later, the Great Communicator went on to win one of the largest electoral landslides in history.
Why was the question so poignant to millions of Americans? To borrow a second quote, this time from a top adviser to President Bill Clinton: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
The eyes of pundits and commentators have been glued to the raw poll numbers as Republicans and Democrats make their final cases in the battle for control of Congress, but the Misery Index may also offer some potent insights. Created by President Lyndon Johnson’s Council of Economic Advisers chairman, Arthur Okun, the Misery Index is simply the sum of unemployment and inflation in the United States.
A higher number implies a more miserable population. The misery level for September 2022, for example, is 11.70, the sum of 3.5% unemployment and 8.2% inflation.
Scrolling through a visual representation of the metric will quickly indicate the metric’s usefulness as a heuristic for predicting tide changes in American electoral politics. The stagflation witnessed under the tenure of President Jimmy Carter caused a surge in both unemployment and inflation ahead of the ascension of President Ronald Reagan, who oversaw consistent declines in economic misery before his successor, President George H.W. Bush, assumed power, granting Republicans an unusual three consecutive terms in the Oval Office.
Three decades later, misery levels remained low throughout the tenure of President Donald Trump until the lockdown-induced recession, which caused a sudden increase in unemployment as workers were sent home under public health mandates. However, when President Joe Biden entered office, unemployment gradually recovered even as inflation soared, leading to a rapid increase in the overall misery level.
Americans appear extraordinarily cognizant of the rise in economic misery as they prepare to cast their ballots. Inflation, after all, is conceivably a worse political obstacle than rampant unemployment, since every single economic actor can be impacted by rising price levels, while only the jobless are primarily impacted by unemployment.
One survey from Bankrate shows that 43% of respondents believe their finances are worse than two years ago, while only 18% say they are better. Most respondents in the former category say Democrats are responsible for the economic headwinds. Among those who reported worse finances, 69% placed “at least a moderate amount of blame” on Biden, including 30% of Democratic respondents, while 71% placed blame on Democrats in Congress.
Another poll from ABC News and The Washington Post found that 84% of voters identify the economy as their top concern, while the Republicans lead the Democrats by a double-digit margin concerning trust in handling the economy. Candidates in the latter party have placed their chips on secondary and tertiary issues such as abortion and combating election denial.
A third survey from the Job Creators Network indicated that 55% of entrepreneurs believe Republicans would “do more to help small businesses” as 29% said the same about Democrats. The trend held among female-owned businesses, while an even larger portion of minority-owned businesses indicated a preference for Republicans, signaling robust support for Republicans even among demographics with which they have historically struggled.
Messaging from the Biden administration has portrayed an extraordinarily rosy view of the economy that is clearly misaligned with voters’ experiences. When the most recent unemployment data showed an uptick from the previous month, the commander-in-chief took the finding as proof that the “economy continues to grow and add jobs.” When the most recent inflation data showed that price levels remained near four-decade highs, he commented that the report “shows some progress.”
“Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” Americans will be providing their answers in a few short days.