Strategists suggest poor jobs report benefits Huntsman, Romney most

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter

Republican presidential hopefuls have seized on the May jobs report to attack President Obama, but strategists disagree over what effect the disappointing report might have on the election 17 months from now.

Republican strategist Phillip Stutts says the election is too far away for the report to have any real effect.

“We’re so far way from November 2012 that it’s just not going to resonate at this point,” he said.

Stutts, who worked on Bush’s reelection campaign in 2004 as the National 72 Hour/Get-Out-The-Vote Director, said that in comparison to that election, it’s clearly a very different landscape.

“What’s crazy is that we were adding at the time one hundred, two hundred, three hundred thousand jobs a month, and the Kerry campaign was killing us that it wasn’t enough. We were watching the jobs reports obsessed that we were going to add enough jobs” to not get attacked again, he said.

Now though, “no one seems to be totally outraged over it,” Stutts said. “People were outraged that we were adding jobs in ’04. Here we’re at 9.1 and there’s little outrage.”

“It could be that we’re just so far out from the election that voters see it and just say ‘this isn’t good,’ but they don’t have the power to vote and make changes yet.”

“I think if you saw this a year from now there would be a much greater sense of outrage,” he said.

Chuck Warren, a Nevada-based Republican political consultant, said that even now, this number would hurt Obama because it would make people start looking at the other possible candidates.

“I think these job reports and the lack of private sector jobs being created just simply puts a chill into all business owners,” he said.

“Those that are even on the fence with President Obama will be looking for other options,” he said. “You really don’t want a great majority of people looking for other options.”

The messaging on the Republican side, he said, would be pretty straightforward, attacking Obama for failing to fulfill his campaign promises.

“Obviously they’re going to go out and say he promised change and hope, and his change has been a worse economy and no hope,” Warren said.

In particular, he said, Republican candidates with a business background, like Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, will be the ones who benefit the most “because it allows them to focus on the economy which is their strength.”

“When they can go make the economy the number one issue, and say I have the experience… that’s going to start giving them the leg up with voters,” he said, adding that voters would start to “take a second look at them.”

For instance, he said, if there were to be a debate today between Romney and Obama, where an “issue comes up in debate about the economy, who are people going to be more prone to believe?” Obama, he said, would have a hard time at this point making the case that he has a strong grip on the economy.

“He’s going on his third year now,” Warren said. “He can’t keep using the Bush excuse. I mean, I always think the first year when you’re in office you really inherited from your predecessor what you got. You can’t say that anymore. That excuse is gone.”

“It’s like a bad Vegas act,” he said. “It’s just not going to stand and people aren’t going to pay attention to it anymore.”

Another Republican strategist said that it would be most beneficial to the Republican candidate that can best articulate a strategy to turn around the economy.

“The focus on jobs and the economy will benefit Mitt Romney on paper, but the test will be if he is the candidate is who can give voice to the concerns of voters, and can articulate a vision of growth,” the strategist said. “If there is a GOP candidate is who can do that successfully, they will be formidable in the primary and the general.”

Paul Wilson, Chairman and CEO of Wilson Grand Communications, agrees with the idea that the low number of jobs created will likely benefit Huntsman and Romney, but like Stutts, notes that such predictions are somewhat premature.

“The May jobs report showing only 54,000 jobs created in the month portends a very difficult race for Obama,” Wilson emailed. “Without reversing this trend, the central issue of the campaign will be jobs, a traditionally strong issue for Republicans. Both former Governor Mitt Romney and former Ambassador Jon Huntsman have substantial experience in the job creation arena, Romney as a turnaround artist and Huntsman having helped build the Huntsman Corporation with his father and brothers. Voters will not tolerate a failing America and so in a perverse way, the bad news is good news for Republican challengers. But it is still very early to make emphatic predictions.”

A fact that has gotten a lot of attention this morning, as reported by The New York Times, is that “[n]o American president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt has won a second term in office when the unemployment rate on Election Day topped 7.2 percent.” But others have pointed out that there is not necessarily a causal relationship.

Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight blog points out, (in an article entitled: “On the Maddeningly Inexact Relationship Between Unemployment and Re-Election”), that “Reagan won re-election by 18 points in 1984, [with an unemployment rate of 7.2 percent,] suggesting that he had quite a bit of slack. An unemployment rate of 7.5 percent would presumably have been good enough to win him another term, as might have one of 8.0 percent, 8.5 percent or even higher.”

Silver looks at the two factors, concluding: “historically, the correlation between the unemployment rate and a president’s performance at the next election has been essentially zero.”

Matt McDonald, a strategist at Hamilton Place Strategies and former Bush campaign and White House official, noted in a report that while it may not be an exact predictor, he explains why, in this case, 8 percent can serve as “a good political gauge today for progress on the jobs front.”

He makes three points. First, that “[t]his is the number that the Administration defined as success for the stimulus. That is probably too much to ask of an economic model, but that’s what they did, and now they have to live with it,” he writes, pointing to Romney’s campaign announcement speech on Thursday where he attacked Obama for exactly that.

His second point is that unemployment above eight percent “is an important psychological jump, for the same reason that people try to sell you things for $9.99. The difference between 8.1 and 7.9 is mentally bigger than the difference between 8.3 and 8.1.”

Finally, he notes that the mere fact that no president since FDR has campaigned for reelection with unemployment so high “will become a talking point itself, and will necessitate the uncomfortable reelection argument of ‘Things could have been worse.’”