June 5, 2012 -- intro: Will a weakening economy make Mitt Romney president? Will a strengthening economy keep Barack Obama in office? Interest rates, GDP, unemployment, taxes and fluctuations of the stock market have all played decisive roles in past elections -- sometimes to pundits' surprise.
Take Ronald Reagan: By January 1983, when Reagan was half-way through his first term, interest rates had hit 20 percent, unemployment was rising, and the nation lay gripped by what was then the worst recession since the Great Depression. Pundits wrote him off. By election day 1984, however, the economy had rebounded, and Reagan won a second term.
"Generally, the candidate the economy helps is the one who winds up winning," says Costas Panagopoulos, assistant professor of political science and director of the Center for Electoral Politics at Fordham University. "But there are cases where the election is not decided on that basis. In 2000, for example, the economy favored Al Gore -- but Bush won."
Looking back over our five most recent presidential elections, here are the candidates who -- in the opinion of historians, economists, sociologists and other experts -- can be viewed as 'victims' of the economy.
quicklist: 1 title: 2008: John McCain text: By the time election day 2008 rolled around, says James Wilcox, Lowrey Professor of Financial Institutions at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, Lehman Brothers had collapsed and the financial crisis was under way. Enough time already had passed for people to understand that the nation was going to see "big problems." That augured badly for the party on whose watch the meltdown had occurred. Says ABC News consultant and president Obama's former top economic advisor Austan Goolsbee, Gwinn Professor of economics at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business: "I'd call it a jump ball. The financial crisis played heavily against McCain and for Obama. Anybody seen as advocating policies similar to the ones that got us into trouble was at a disadvantage." media: 16492231
quicklist: 2 title: 2004: John Kerry text: The economy wasn't the deciding issue in the 2004 election, our experts agree. "It's an interesting election, because it's somewhat similar to the present moment," Goolsby says. Bush, he says, had come into office to confront a recession that had started almost the moment that he got there. But a "modest comeback" was under way in the economy, offering Kerry little advantage.
What hurt Kerry more than an on-the-mend economy, says Jeffrey Selinger, assistant professor of government at Bowdoin College, was his propensity for flip-flopping: "Kerry had voted in favor of authorizing the war in Iraq. Then he went on to criticize the war; but he didn't have any clear position on what he'd do going forward." There was "an embarrassing gaffe" where a reporter asked Kerry if, knowing what he later knew, he'd still have voted to authorize the war. Kerry had said yes. "The campaign said he'd meant to say 'no,' but by then nobody had any idea of where he was," Selinger says.
quicklist: 3 title: 2000: Al Gore text: The red-hot Clinton economy, says Bowdoin's Selinger, had cooled only slightly going into the 2000 election. The rate of job growth had slowed, but only by a little. So, the economy remained strong--which should have worked to Al Gore's advantage.
Gore, however, was trying to distance himself from the Clinton record.
His proposal for what to do with the Clinton budget surplus, says Selinger, was one that many voters found unattractive.
Whereas George W. Bush proposed giving the surplus back to voters as a tax refund, Gore proposed holding on to it to pay down future debt. Gore's approach, says Selinger, proved hard to sell at a time when voters weren't much concerned about the debt. "You can only make the case that we need to address the debt when the fear factor is high," he says.
Bush also managed to turn the public's attention away from the economy and onto other issues. Lynn Vavreck, associate professor of political science and communications at UCLA and the director of the Center for the Study of Campaigns, says that's a rare accomplishment.
Of course, the determining factor in this most contested election in modern times was the Supreme Court's refusal to continue recounting the ballots in Florida.
Since 1952, she says, only four candidates have managed this re-direction trick: John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon in '68, Jimmy Carter, and George W. Bush.
Panagopoulos concurs: "Bush knew if voters made up their minds on the basis of the economy, he would lose. He was able to raise the salience of other issues that favored him."
"When economically disadvantaged candidates 'steal' elections away from the economically advantaged ones," Vavreck explains, they do so by refocusing the electorate's attention onto the perceived shortcomings of their opponent. In this case, those were Al Gore's positions on moral and family-values issues.
quicklist: 4 title: 1996: Bob Dole text: In November 1996, President Clinton easily defeated both Bob Dole and Ross Perot -- a victory few would have predicted only two years earlier. Republicans in 1994's midterm elections had won back control of the House and Senate. But the economy had then strengthened. The Dow Jones industrial average rose 88 percent. Unemployment fell by 1.9 percent. Clinton easily sent Dole (and Ross Perot) packing. media: 16492255
quicklist: 5 title: 1992: George H.W. Bush text: In February 1991, Commander-in-Chief George H.W. Bush, having expelled Saddam Hussein's forces from Kuwait, was riding high. His approval rating was 89 percent. The United States, however, was entering a recession, and voters' worries about the economy loomed larger than their satisfaction with Bush's military victories. By November, unemployment was 2 percent higher than when Bush had entered office. Opponent Bill Clinton bludgeoned Bush with the catch-phrase "It's the economy, stupid." That -- plus the fact that third party candidate Perot siphoned away Bush voters -- put Clinton in the White House. media: 16492243