'Are You Better Off Now' Answer May Lie in Voters' Memories

The question's political effectiveness lies in voter's moods rather than raw numbers.

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Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan stands before a cheering Republican National Convention in Detroit's Joe Louis Arena on July 17, 1980.

Are you better off now than you were four years ago?

It's the question Republican presidential nominee Ronald Reagan asked voters in 1980 leading up to Election Day and it's the question GOP nominee Mitt Romney and his vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan are asking voters now. In Reagan's case, it won him the White House. But will it do the same for Romney?

"Romney will ask that question and [President Barack] Obama is fighting against history to convince Americans to re-elect him in these economic times," says Jeremy Mayer, a political science professor at George Mason University.

The question's power lies in its simplicity and subjectiveness – it capitalizes on voters' moods and impressions, rather than banking on their ability to scrutinize and decide between rival economic plans.

[Read: Mitt Romney still looking for poll bounce.]

"Remember Ronald Reagan talking about Jimmy Carter, are you better off now than you were four years ago?" said Ryan during a Tuesday campaign event in Ohio. "When it comes to jobs, President Obama makes the Jimmy Carter years look like good old days. If we fired Jimmy Carter, then why would we re-hire Barack Obama now?"

Democrats, who initially muddled their answer to the question posed over the weekend, have now found their voice.

"I've got a little bumper sticker for you - Osama bin Laden is dead and GM is alive!" roared Vice President Joe Biden at a recent campaign event.

Despite Biden's enthusiasm, Americans are pretty down on the economy. The unemployment rate steadily remains above 8 percent, consumer spending is far below where it was in 2008 and economic confidence is middling, according to Gallup.

[Check out U.S. News Weekly: an insider's guide to politics and policy.]

"Obama is swimming against his history – no president since FDR has been elected with numbers this bad," Mayer says. "The big job losses happened after Obama was inaugurated. No one, not even the most rabid Republican can realistically blame him for job losses in January and February. But history does, the American people do and so you are held accountable for job losses from the moment you lift your hand and say, 'I take this oath.'"

As it happens, the fate of the deadlocked election may hinge on the strength of voters' memories.

Even though most people may not feel they are 'better off' now than they were in 2008, it's likely they are at least better off than they were in 2010. That's when the unemployment rate peaked over 10 percent, daily consumer spending was down to $59 from $99 in 2008 (it currently sits at $75), according to Gallup. In 2008, the stock market was wildly fluxuating, with the Dow Jones peaking at over 13,000 in January but plummeting to 7,500 in November, as the banking industry teetered on collapse. In May 2010, the stock market was also experiencing record volatility due to concerns over the Greek debt crisis.

[Read: Top 5 takeaways from the Republican National Convention.]

"At its afternoon low, the Dow had plummeted 998.50 points, its biggest intraday point drop ever. The swing from its intraday high was 1,010.14 points," reported the Wall Street Journal.

Today, the average is hovering around 13,000.

And economic confidence, as measured by Gallup, was also in a free fall in 2008 and has slowly increased since.

Mayer says Obama will try to "remind people of that 'punch to the stomach' feeling that I think a lot of us had when Wall Street was dropping and there seemed to be no end in sight."

"The one saving grace that Obama has is that polls consistently show as recently as this year is that more Americans blame George W. Bush for the collapse than blame Obama," he says. "And Obama is going to have a moment in the debates, and Romney better have a good answer for this, he's going to say, 'Mr. Romney, what at all is different about your economic plans from George W. Bush's?'"

Rebekah Metzler is a political writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact her at rmetzler@usnews.com or follow her on Twitter.

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