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Lack of jobs weighs on US voters' minds

This article first appeared in The Straits Times on Sept 30, 2012.

Published on Oct 5, 2012 12:28 PM
People marching in a Labour Day parade in Charlotte, North Carolina, earlier this month. Despite doubt over whether Mr Obama can deliver on jobs, polling data collected over several months suggests that high unemployment alone will not doom him - or give his rival the keys to the White House. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

Miss Danielle McMillan, 23, had high hopes of moving to a big city and landing an exciting first job after graduating from college in May.

But her dreams were dashed by a sour job market and unemployment hovering above 8 per cent for the last 43 months. She moved back into her parents' basement in her hometown of Pontiac, Illinois, where she despaired of finding a job and repaying US$36,000 (S$44,000) worth of student loans.

She is also increasingly torn over whom to support in the upcoming United States presidential election.

"While I feel bad that I may not be giving President Obama four more years, I just can't live in my parents' basement, cross my fingers and hope it all works out," said Miss McMillan, who voted Republican in 2008 but leaned "very Democratic" in her college years.

"Midway through his presidency, I thought Mr Obama was doing a good job. But the turnaround he promised just didn't materialise when it came to my turn to get a job. I feel betrayed and lied to."

Come Nov6, the fresh graduate said she might well vote for Republican challenger Mitt Romney if her job search does not improve.

She is hardly alone in feeling this way.

In interviews with 15 unemployed and underemployed American voters about their choice, the strain of long-term joblessness clearly weighed on their minds. While staunch Democrats remained sympathetic towards Mr Obama, several independents who at one time supported him said they now question whether he can really fix the economy.

Part-time financial blog columnist David Bakke, for instance, said his experience of not being able to find a full-time, well-paid job in the past two years has certainly made him gravitate towards Mr Romney.

The Republican challenger had an extremely successful career as a management consultant and later as the chief executive of private equity firm Bain Capital prior to joining politics.

"What this country needs right now is a leader who has experience in turning companies around, and Mr Romney certainly fits that bill. If our country ever needed some financial turning around, now is definitely the time for it," said Mr Bakke, 46, who lost his full-time job in the financial services industry when his company downsized.

But the views of Miss McMillan and Mr Bakke tell only part of a complex, evolving story about the US economy and the presidential election.

Months of polling data from a wide range of outlets is just beginning to shed new light on voter sentiment.

The emerging statistical picture, in a nutshell, is that high unemployment alone will not doom Mr Obama. More importantly, it is not enough to give Mr Romney the keys to the White House, as evidenced by his inability to gain a lead in the polls despite a string of weak job reports since April.

According to an aggregate of nine recent polls by the website, Mr Obama is ahead by 3.8 percentage points, the largest lead since Sept 5. Mr Romney has not led in the polls since last October.

The outlook for the Romney campaign is even more pessimistic in key battleground states like Ohio, where the real electoral contest is being waged. The US presidency is not won by a popular vote, but by the candidate who can stitch together a winning coalition of states that can give him 270 electoral votes or more.

The latest poll by the Washington Post shows Mr Obama leading in Ohio by eight points - 52 to 44 per cent - a margin that has prompted some observers to put the heartland state in his column.

No Republican has ever won the White House without Ohio, and Mr Romney would have to sweep a string of other battleground states to overcome that loss. But that would be very challenging at this late stage, given Mr Obama's lead in critical states like Florida and Virginia.

So what accounts for this seemingly topsy-turvy situation? Going by conventional wisdom and history, Mr Obama should be in trouble, as no sitting US president facing unemployment of over 8 per cent has ever won re-election.

One major reason the President seems to be beating the odds could be that his campaign's relentless attacks on Mr Romney's background and track record are working.

Since January, they have attacked the former businessman's role in shutting local factories and shipping jobs overseas, and accused him of wanting to cut taxes for the wealthy at the expense of middle-class families.

The portrayal of Mr Romney as a cold-hearted "vulture capitalist" has certainly turned off some voters.

Ms Cameron Miquelon, who has been jobless since her previous employer filed for bankruptcy late last year, said she does not want a president who has admitted that he "enjoys" firing people.

"A CEO simply thinks about the bottom line. But America is not a corporation and I would say this to Mr Romney - as president you have to be more than a businessman," said the 34-year-old, who is based in Louisville, Kentucky.

Secondly, Mr Romney has not helped himself with an unfocused campaign that has lurched from talking point to talking point, and failed to fully capitalise on key junctures, such as the recent Republican national convention, to win over more voters.

Most damagingly, he failed to present a compelling economic argument that would not only counter the attacks against him, but also firmly establish him as the candidate with a credible plan to fix high unemployment and the worrying deficit.

One of the most surprising trends to have emerged from the pile of polling data is the way Mr Obama erased his rival's main edge in the election - economic competency - in a matter of months.

Despite signs of trouble, Mr Romney said in a recent TV interview that his campaign did not need a turnaround, and that he would spend the closing weeks of the election going around the US promoting his economic message.

A shockingly poor job report on Oct 5 or Nov 2 - the last two before the election - would certainly help his case.

With 12.5 million Americans unemployed, 2.6 million marginally attached to the workforce, and eight million merely working part-time for lack of a full-time job, Mr Romney certainly has a built-in audience.

But the question is whether he can still change their minds.

Additional reporting by Hoe Pei Shan