WASHINGTON – Notch one more victim of the recession: With crucial midterm elections nearing, Democrats have lost the advantage they've held for years as the party the public trusts to steer the economy.
The timing could be fortunate for the Republicans. With jobs and the economy dominating voters' concerns, the GOP will wield the issue as a cudgel in the battle to grab control of at least one chamber of Congress this November and weaken President Barack Obama.
"The number one question on voters' minds is, 'Where are the jobs?'" said Ken Spain, spokesman for the House Republican campaign organization. "Republican candidates on the campaign trail will ask one very simple question: 'Are you better off today that you were two years ago?'"
Misty McMahon, 30, a teacher from Vancleave, Miss., knows her answer. "I feel like it's so bad right now that it will be hard to climb out," said McMahon, who voted for Obama but now trusts Republicans more on the economy. "I'm kind of disappointed in the stuff he's done."
Each party now has the confidence of 44 percent of people for handling the economy, according to an Associated Press-GfK Poll conducted this month. The Democrats had a nine-point advantage just four months ago, and have held an edge since AP polls began asking about the issue in 2006. In longer-running polling by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, the last time the two parties were even on the economy was 2002.
Pollsters, analysts and politicians across party lines agree the Democrats have lost their grip on the issue chiefly due to unemployment rates that have stuck near 10 percent since last summer, an ongoing foreclosure crisis and the recession that began in December 2007. Despite signals the economy has begun to heal — such as last week's reports of growing new home sales and rising orders for manufactured products — the improvements have been too subtle for many people to notice.
While the November elections are a long way off, most economists believe unemployment will still be high by Election Day, and improvements in the economy are likely to be modest.
Aware that the party in power is commonly punished for a weak economy, Democrats hope to persuade voters to view the elections as a choice between their party's recovery efforts and what they call the GOP's preferences to reward corporations and wealthy taxpayers.
"It will be the job of members of Congress and the president and our candidates to make it clear that these elections are not just a referendum on the state of the economy; it will be a choice between two different paths," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who heads the House Democratic campaign operation.
The Democrats also may have hurt their image as effective custodians of the economy by spending more than a year pushing Obama's near $1 trillion health care overhaul through Congress. It was enacted last month to mixed public reviews and after many people — including Democrats — complained that stronger congressional efforts on jobs were overdue.
"It created the impression that Democrats were not focusing enough on jobs and getting people back to work," said Geoffrey Garin, a Democratic pollster and strategist, adding, "But health care is now behind us."
Some of Obama's top economic initiatives have also failed to deliver political dividends because, economists say, they have largely prevented the recession from worsening rather than sparking immediate improvements.
As a result, many people have come to view those measures as symbols of excessive federal spending. They include the $787 billion stimulus package and the $80 billion rescue of automakers General Motors and Chrysler, to which the public often adds the $700 billion financial industry bailout enacted in late 2008 under President George W. Bush.
"Politically, it's often hard to show a negative, a what-if-we-hadn't-stepped-in," said Mark Penn, a Democratic pollster and strategist.
Details from the AP-GfK show perils and opportunities for both parties.
Three-quarters of those surveyed said the economy is still in poor condition. Of that group, fewer than four in 10 said they trust Democrats to do a better job on the economy, and about the same number said they want Democrats to win control of Congress in November.
In contrast, among the people who say the economy is doing well, two-thirds trust Democrats to handle the issue and nearly as many want them to control Congress.
Supporters of a party in power tend to view the economy more positively than members of the party out of power.
Two other groups in the poll could be pivotal in November.
Among people who say the economy is bad, those who believe things improved in the past month are far likelier to support Democrats than those who've not seen recent gains. Growth in optimism could help Democrats retain their congressional majorities.
On the other hand, nearly two-thirds in the poll say they know a non-relative who has recently lost a job. This group, whose size has remained steady for more than a year, is likelier to back Republicans.
"That's the circle that becomes problematic for any incumbent administration," said GOP pollster David Winston.
The AP-GfK Poll was conducted April 7-12 by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Media and involved interviews with 1,001 adults nationwide on landline and cellular telephones. It had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.
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