The Election Has Never Been About Jobs

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The election was never really about jobs.

Though the unemployment rate ticked down to 7.8% in September -- the first rate below 8% since January 2009 -- it didn't fundamentally signal a change in the sluggish downward trend.

"If you look at the trend of the overall employment picture, this kind of fits in with modestly improving jobs picture," said Brad Sorensen, market and sector research director at Charles Schwab. "We don't think we'll be dropping three-tenths of a percent in the unemployment rate for the next several months."

Throughout 2012, President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney have said this election is about jobs and getting Americans back to work. Even back in December 2011, before the Republican primaries began, a major Obama backer said the incumbent should be focused on unemployment.

"The number that a Democrat incumbent needs to be the most focused on is the unemployment number," Billy Vassiliadis, CEO of R&R Partners, said in a previous interview. "If this number gets to 12, 13, 14, 15 ... or even if it begins to head north again, and I mean not a 0.01%, but it literally goes up one or two points, I think that is going to be real problematic. The president's re-election chances are going to be enhanced or diminished by the next 10 months of looking for some economic hope."

Well, we've hit that tenth month, and the unemployment rate sits just a tab below 8%. Last December, the rate was 8.5%, so it's come down just seven-tenths of a percentage point over that span. The trend has been to move incrementally lower month-to-month; although there were slight upticks from March to April and June to July.

The thing is the polls don't suggest the unemployment rate was previously dictating Obama's fate in the election, so it's worth cautioning against assuming it will do so now.

An average of general election polls collected by RealClearPolitics show Obama up 49.3% to 46.1% against Romney. Gallup's latest poll, released Friday, showed Obama up by five percentage points. Though this isn't a runaway lead, it's a fairly stable margin.

In Ohio, the president holds a three-percentage-point average lead against his Republican opponent. Many political consultants contend that Ohio is the pivotal battle ground state that Romney must attain if he has any hope for victory. Obama holds similar comfortable leads in Iowa, Nevada and Colorado.

So while the snail-like decline of the unemployment rate over the past 10 months would seem to benefit Romney, he hasn't been able to translate that into a commanding presence in most of the battleground states. Romney has a 0.8 percentage-point lead in North Carolina (likely a must-win for him), and has drawn even in Florida, but those two states alone wouldn't be enough to put him over the top.

Part of the reason Obama hasn't been beat-up too badly for the slow jobs creation this year may relate to people taking a more fundamental, philosophical approach to this election, according to Jeffrey Sica, president of Sica Wealth Management, who believes voters may be taking a longer view than just focusing on what's going on in the economy right now.

"There's a brand new dynamic in this election that ... you would think it would be about the economy, you would think that people would vote for the candidate that they felt would improve their financial situation. In this case it's also a matter of belief," he said.

Sica argued that if voters believed that economic woes were not a matter of a failed policy, but the matter of too little time to institute that policy, then they would give the incumbent a second chance. For voters to move to the challenger, Sica said, they would have to have a significant amount of faith in him.

In some ways, voters have become accustomed to slow growth as an economic reality, regardless of what the president and Congress try to do. Even modest improvements -- such as Friday's dip in the unemployment rate -- are hailed as milestones.

To shake people out of this status quo mentality, Romney must exhibit a level of credibility to voters that motivates them to make a conscious shift in his favor. He may have sparked some hope in the presidential debate on Wednesday.

Sig Rogich, a former adviser to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, said Romney's debate performance made him look presidential and earned him credibility among voters.

"If people go in with a big sigh into that voting booth, they might just say, 'We got to get out of this mess,'" Rogich said.

And just as the unemployment rate trend didn't cripple Obama before now, it's likely Friday's news won't significantly boost his chances either.

"In the big picture sense, this election is about -- there's a sense of gloom across the board, everyday there's bad news. If it's not internally, it's offshore and other borders, and I still think this thing has a long way to go before it's decided," said Rogich.

-- Written by Joe Deaux in New York.

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