Every election cycle since the phrase became popular in the 1992 presidential campaign, politicians and pundits remind voters that elections almost always come down to a simple concept: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
The mid-cycle of 2022 has not departed from this tradition.
But as fall approaches, the better question might be which economy? Or better yet, the economy from what time of year?
As fall approaches, the past few weeks have presented a set of conflicting numbers that raise questions about what the state of the economy really is. Two quarters of negative growth certainly looks bad, but the economy added more than 500,000 jobs in July. That looks pretty good.
Inflation, of course, is at levels not seen in decades. But this week’s numbers showed that consumers believe inflation is slowing.
And consider two of the most important economic measures for most Americans, the price of fuel and the state of the stock market.
When Americans talk about inflation, they can have many things on their minds. It could be the cost of food. It can be the price of plane tickets. But it’s often what they pay at the pump to fill up their cars, and that price has come down a lot in recent months.
The average price of a gallon of regular gasoline (all formulations) has declined about a dollar over the past month-plus, from just over $5 on June 13 to just over $4 on August 8. That’s the kind of people change. feel because they see it concretely. When people pay, say, $15 less when they fill up at the gas station, they’re likely to notice.
If gas prices are something that comes out in the wallet, the state of the stock market is something that affects people when they think about their retirement accounts. And in recent months the news has been… better.
Since June 17, the Dow Jones Average has gained nearly 3,000 points and is close to where it stood at the end of May. To be clear, the Dow is still down for the year, about 3,700 points, but it’s out of the cellar. And voters opening their 401(k) returns are probably feeling a little better than they were at the start of the summer.
What does all this mean for November? This is a good question.
Much of the economy is mental. It’s as much about how people “feel” about it as it is about the actual state of the economy. Besides, it’s the beginning of August. Some analysts will tell you that people’s perceptions of the economy are already set at this point in an election year. And what’s more, these numbers could go back in the other direction in a month or two. If there’s any big lesson in 2022 so far, it’s probably being wise to speak up. Instability is the rule.
But right now, things look better than they did a few months ago by some key metrics. And the real meaning of “it’s the economy, stupid” seems less clear than it did earlier this summer.
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