Obama and Democrats Should Beware the Return of the Misery Index

The question for 2010: Are you better off now than you were two years ago?

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By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Ronald Reagan won the 1980 presidential race, in part, because of a cleverly constructed measuring device called "The Misery Index." The index, which consisted of nothing more than the addition of the inflation rate to the percent of Americans who were unemployed, was used by Reagan to illustrate his contention that incumbent President Jimmy Carter had no idea what he was doing when it came to handling the problems being experienced by the U.S. economy.

It also gave birth to two of the most memorable lines of that or, frankly, any national campaign. They are certainly favorites of mine.

The first was Reagan's observation that "A recession is when your neighbor loses his job. A depression is when you lose your job. And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his." The other, which Bill Clinton also sort of made use of during his victorious 1992 campaign against incumbent George H.W. Bush, was to ask the voters to consider "Whether you are better off now than you were four years ago."

So what does this have to do with 2009? Pollster Gene Ulm, of the firm Public Opinion Strategies, recently published a memo that explains the potential political ramifications of the "Misery Index," now 8.34 and rising with no sign it will peak anytime soon, in the upcoming off-year election.

"Of the 15 midterm elections held since 1950, 13 have been 'change' elections," says Ulm, meaning the voters used the election as an opportunity to curb the behavior of the White House, to pull it back toward the center. The more prominent examples of change elections included the Republican gains in 1966 and 1994—which put a brake on the Johnson and Clinton legislative agendas—and the strong showing by the Democrats in 1986 and 2006, which effectively sapped the energy from the Reagan and George W. Bush presidencies.

So what does this mean for Obama and his agenda? According to Ulm's analysis, the average MI going in to a change election was 10.1; the average MI going into a "status quo" election—where the party in power lost very few seats or, in fact, gained—was 6.86. At 8.34, not quite 100 days into his presidency, Obama's MI is, give or take a quarter of a point, right in the middle. But, as I said earlier, the barometer is falling, and that means bad weather ahead.

"The President's party lost an average of 26 seats in these 'change' midterms. In only three of twelve elections were there single-digit losses, the rest double-digit losses in the House, with a high of 52 seats in '94. The average party out-of-power loss with a double-digit Misery Index is 22 House seats," says Ulm, which would take the Republicans a little more than halfway to majority in the House. And, depending on where those new seats came from, it could almost be enough to stop the Obama-Reid-Pelosi agenda dead in the water.

Of course, all this turns on the health of the economy, or lack thereof. But, as Ulm advises, "A double-digit Misery Index in October '10 will virtually insure double-digit Democratic losses in the House." Speaker Boehner, anyone?

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