If you need a reminder of how short-sighted all of us—the public, politicians, the media—can be, you get one at the beginning of every month, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases its monthly report on job creation. Suddenly, it seems that nothing that happened before matters, and nothing else will matter again, at least until Election Day.
Case in point: As recently as March, a few consecutive months of healthy job creation convinced everyone that Mitt Romney had to retool his campaign and find something to talk about other than the economy, since we were obviously prancing down the road to recovery at a jaunty pace. Last Friday, a third consecutive weak report left everyone convinced that America's economy is mired in quicksand and the prospects for a Romney presidency have never looked better.
But here’s the thing: In these media-saturated times, our very short-sightedness may mean the jobs reports that really affect the election won’t come out until the fall. Are we all making a fuss too early?
It's important to realize that a monthly jobs report is not "reality," it's a picture of reality, and one that may not be all that accurate. First, performance in one month can be an anomaly in either direction, either a positive blip in a bad overall trend, or a negative blip in a good overall trend. Secondly, monthly jobs reports are often revised either up or down later. April’s report, for instance, originally said that 115,000 jobs were created, but that’s since been revised down to 77,000. But by the time those revisions are released, there are new numbers to make political hay out of, so nobody notices.
That's one among many clues that when it comes to the election, what matters isn't economic reality but economic perception. About 30 years ago, political scientists determined that simple "pocketbook voting"—voters favoring the incumbent party if they were doing well, but turning against it if they weren't—didn’t accurately describe how people actually make their decisions. Instead, voters are "sociotropic," meaning they are more likely to vote based on how they think the economy as a whole is doing. So how do we form our impressions of how the economy is doing?
This is where it gets complicated. You have multiple layers of information about the economy, from how your friends and family have done, to whether stores are restaurants are opening or closing in your town. Then you have the condition of your state, and the national picture—both of which are filtered through the media, which is constantly give you new information.
But "the media"—especially the national media—is a very different beast from what it was just a few years ago. There are many more news sources, and kinds of news sources, than there were even in the last election (the social media explosion happened only in the last couple of years). So there is without doubt more news and commentary about the economy available today than ever before. That is particularly true in the time since the catastrophe of 2008. You'd be hard-pressed to find a news organization that hasn't made some attempt to beef up its economic coverage in the last four years. And though this is hard to prove, my impression is that the monthly jobs numbers get much more attention than they did five or ten years ago.
So once a month, at least for a couple of days, the news is saturated with discussions of that latest jobs number. And as political scientist Gabriel Lenz argues, people's perception of a president's entire term is a function of how they think things are going right now. In effect, the latest events cast a backward glow on the economy's performance over a period of years.
This is surely maddening to the folks at Obama headquarters. The President can propose job creation bills all he likes, but the chances that congressional Republicans will agree to anything that might improve economic conditions are somewhere between zero and nil. Their intransigence renders him unable to do anything to create jobs, which they then hold up as proof that he can't create jobs.
But maddening or not, if it’s true that the latest events have an out-sized impact on voting behavior, then the jobs report that really matters is the one that comes out right before Americans go to the polls. That would be on November 2—four days before Election Day.
Paul Waldman is a Contributing Editor with The American Prospect magazine and the author or co-author of a number of books about media and politics, including The Press Effect: Politicians, Journalists, and the Stories That Shape the Political World. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, and many other newspapers and magazines.