WASHINGTON – As the presidential campaign got under way a year ago, the candidates faced a volatile political environment dominated by the Iraq war, illegal immigration and terrorism. A year later, the campaigns are rewriting their scripts as it looks like the race may actually be shaped once more by the economy, stupid.
The virtual halt in job growth, the spike in oil prices above $100 a barrel, the New Year’s stock market tumble and the continuing mortgage crisis have fueled fears of recession and crystallized the nation’s growing economic anxiety. Nowhere was that clearer this week than in New Hampshire, where exit polls showed that the economy has overtaken all other issues as the top concern for Democrats and Republicans alike.
While the Federal Reserve indicated Thursday that it will move to spur growth and President Bush and Congress consider stimulus packages, economic worry has already forced the presidential candidates to retool their messages.
Republican Rudolph Giuliani proposed a new tax cut package Thursday as rivals appealed to economically distressed voters in Michigan. Democrat Barack Obama, who fared worst among New Hampshire voters worried about the economy, focused more heavily on the theme Thursday.
“The economy’s number one,” said Scott Paul, director of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, a coalition of manufacturers and the United Steelworkers that has found deep apprehension about the economy at town hall meetings held in early primary states. “It’s organic. It’s not an organized effort. But it’s something the voters, Republicans and Democrats, are fretting about.”
The poll numbers in New Hampshire were striking. Among Democrats, 38 percent called the economy the biggest issue, compared with 31 percent who named Iraq and 27 percent who said health care. Among Republicans, 31 percent cited the economy, while 24 percent said Iraq and 23 percent chose illegal immigration.
Nationally, the economy began popping to the top of voter concerns before the turn of the year. A Washington Post-ABC News poll in November found that Iraq was the dominant issue by a margin of 2 to 1. By last month, the same survey found the economy and Iraq essentially tied as the biggest areas of concern for voters across the country.
But different voters have different anxieties about the economy. For some, it may be jobs, for others housing. Health care and energy costs trouble large swaths of the population.
“You’ll see candidates spending more time on the economy,” said former White House political director Sara Taylor, who worked on Bush’s campaigns. “But it won’t be enough to address the economy as a whole. They’ll have to discuss” individual areas of concern.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., managed to tap into that anxiety this week in New Hampshire more successfully than Obama. Although she has sought to address the disaffected middle class since the spring, much as her husband did in his 1992 campaign, her message has often been muffled until she returned to it more intensively in recent days. She repeatedly cited her husband’s record of producing 22 million new jobs while promising to make college more affordable and ensuring universal health care.
The National Election Pool exit poll in New Hampshire showed Clinton winning among voters who cited the economy as the biggest issue and among those who said their own family was falling behind financially. Among those who consider the economy in poor shape, she beat Obama 44 percent to 31 percent, a margin 10 percentage points greater than her overall edge.
Obama has an economic plan centered around tax cuts for the lower and middle classes and has held events built around the subprime mortgage crisis. He has also begun making more direct appeals to the economically disadvantaged. “We understand that the struggles of the textile worker in Spartanburg are not so different than the plight of the dishwasher in Las Vegas,” he told a crowd in Charleston, S.C., on Thursday, echoing a line from his New Hampshire concession speech.
Republicans are also reorienting their messages to take into account growing concerns about the economy, beginning in Michigan over the next six days. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is the only Republican with an economic message that breaks from party orthodoxy with a more populist appeal on the plight of the working class, concern over income inequality and doubt about the effectiveness of free trade.
When he arrived in Michigan on Wednesday, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., spoke directly to those problems with a pledge to help workers whose jobs have disappeared through globalization. Giuliani on Thursday proposed to cut corporate and capital gains tax rates and simplify the tax code so Americans can file a one-page return. “It would be the biggest tax cut in American history,” the former New York mayor said.