Maybe The Election Wasn't All About the Economy

One analysis suggests that the president's win may not have been connected to the improving economy.


President Barack Obama holds up a pen as he speaks about the economy, Nov. 9, 2012, in the East Room of the White House.

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Remember all of the obsessing over jobs numbers in the run-up to the election? It looks like those reports may not have been as important as everyone had thought. One economist has picked apart the data and found that while there is a relationship between jobs numbers and the president's performance, it's the opposite of what you might guess.

In metro areas where the unemployment rate fell over the last four years, the president tended to do worse in terms of how his vote count compared to 2008, according to Jed Kolko, chief economist at real estate site Trulia, in a blog post published Wednesday. Likewise, in those metro areas where the unemployment rate had grown, the president's margins of victory tended to be higher (and his margins of defeat tended to be smaller).

Kolko has dissected the figures from a number of different points and finds that it's also not simply a matter of recent trends — a drop in unemployment over the last year did not mean that the president's performance improved.

And it's not just a question of the job market. Kolko also found no statistically significant relationship between home prices and the president's performance.

[RELATED: Middle Class Can't Afford Homes in Nearly Half of Major Metro Areas]

"Voters simply did not treat the 2012 election as a referendum on whether Obama helped their local housing or jobs market recover," he concluded in his post.

It's a surprising outcome, especially in an election in which voters consistently ranked the economy their top concern.

"I expected to see Obama getting more of a boost in local markets where home prices recovered and unemployment fell more," he tells U.S. News. "I expected people to have voted more for Obama in 2012 than in 2008 in places where the local economy was stronger."

If these two key economic indicators didn't affect voters, then what was it? Kolko points to two possibilities. One is racial diversity. In places where the non-Hispanic white population was greater, the president's performance tended to fall, and vice versa: the president generally did better in places where the non-Hispanic white population was smaller.

[READ: How Latinos Will Shape Future Housing Policy]

True, two key populations — blacks and Hispanics — tend to have higher unemployment rates than non-Hispanic whites. But even when race is taken into account, Kolko didn't see a boost for Obama in places where the jobless rate fell.

The other factor may have been Hurricane Sandy. President Obama's widely-praised handling of the storm may have boosted his performance, Kolko says.

And of course, a plethora of other issues factor into many voters' decisions as well.

"Voters of course said the economy was their number one issue, but I think a lot of factors that go into our politics in this polarized age are way beyond 'How is the economy doing?'—things like social issues [and] baseline party ID things that matter a lot," says Geoff Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. He also adds that demographics likely played a huge part in Obama's win, with young and non-white voters tending to support the president.

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Of course, there are limitations to Kolko's analysis. For instance, jobs and housing aren't the only economic indicators that might make a voter feel better or worse—factors like income and price levels could also play into a voter's perception of economic health. Plus, the data only reflect nearly 400 of the largest metropolitan areas, and not smaller cities and rural areas.

Still, the data suggest that when it came to this year's elections, the obsession over the economy may have been overdone.

"I do think it's probably more evidence that there are certain baseline ideological and demographic factors that have more weight on voters' minds than 'Is the economy getting better in this place?'" says Skelley.

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  • CORRECTED ON 11/15/12: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of metropolitan areas involved in Mr. Kolko’s analysis.