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The Economy

With the ire of the American public piqued by a flat economy, roving candidates from both parties are speaking to the bread-and-butter issues that most concern voters

AMERICANS, more than most Europeans, are inclined to see matters of work and money as personal, not political, problems.

But this election year could be different - even if the chill of recession thaws. Running beneath the surface ice of stagnant growth are deeper, longer-range concerns about erosion in the country's economic strength.

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"This is the most important election since 1968," says Samuel Popkin, political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, and author of a recent book, "The Reasoning Voter.This campaign's really going to ratify national economic policy - that we need one," he says.

Dr. Popkin tends to support Democrats, but veteran Republican strategist Ed Rollins makes a similar argument.

At a recent Monitor breakfast, Mr. Rollins called this election a "critical time for the country" that goes beyond the recession to concerns about education, infrastructure, and international competitiveness.

"People are reflecting on their lives more than in the '80s," he says. "People crave leadership. If this president wants to leave a mark on history, then he's going to have to lay out a vision for where this country's going to have to be in five years."

One treasure at stake is the public's perception of Republicans as most trusted to competently manage the economy. That wasn't always so. Since at least 1948, the last Gallup poll before each election gave that honor to Democrats.

But in 1980, President Reagan recast the GOP as the party of growth and jobs. This perception, says Mr. Reagan's former pollster Richard Wirthlin, "has been the gold standard of the Republican Party."

That rating is up for grabs. Mr. Wirthlin completed a study this month that showed voters trusted the Democratic Congress over President Bush, 40 to 32 percent, to manage the economy. In December, the two ran dead even.

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In general, voters judge by results - chiefly economic growth. "What most people respond to are short-term changes in real disposable income," says Steven Rosenstone of the University of Michigan, a leading expert on the economy and voting behavior.

Americans are not prone to simply voting their own pocketbooks either. Voters make distinctions between national problems and their own problems. They vote their own pocketbooks when they connect their own circumstances to the performance of the national economy.

"Americans don't tend to politicize their personal economic troubles as much as people in other countries," says Edward Tufte, a Yale political scientist.

Dr. Rosenstone estimates roughly that voters base their ballot-box decisions about two parts on the nation's pocketbook and one part on their own. If gross national product growth in the third quarter of an election year is less than 1 percent, he says, "incumbents lose resoundingly."

What influences voters is not the level of economic output, wages, or standard of living, notes Wirthlin, but the direction - whether conditions are getting better or worse.

Reagan asked voters in 1980 whether they were better or worse off than four years earlier, but voters seldom think in such long spans, Rosenstone says.

"It's very clear that voters have very short memories," he says. "They remember six months to a year."

Short memories may be good news for the Bush-Quayle campaign. Voters next fall will compare the state of the economy to its unattractive state now. Assuming a more vigorous recovery starts soon, that stands to be a flattering comparison.

The chief economic concern of voters is unemployment, but the issue illustrates how the personal and the political play out. Popkin notes that the people who react are not the unemployed, who are likely to see their predicament as special and who become less likely to vote, but the people around them.

This amplifies the issue. Only 1 in 14 Americans in the labor market is jobless. But 22 percent of households know someone who is jobless, a January survey by Peter D. Hart Research Associates finds. Looking ahead, 23 percent of households have a high level of concern over losing a job in the coming year. Further, 39 percent of households had their incomes reduced in the past year.

Overall, unemployment has directly affected 2 of 5 American households, Mr. Hart notes.

Alan Lichtman, a political scientist at American University, has identified 13 "keys" to whether the presidential party in power can win reelection. One turns on the long-term economy, whether a president's term was stronger than the average of the eight previous years. In this election, "that key is lost," Dr. Lichtman says.

Another key is the short-term direction of the economy next fall. If the direction is down, says Lichtman, Mr. Bush can still win. But he's on very thin ice.

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