In Monday night's presidential debate at Hofstra University, be prepared for the candidates to offer radically different views of the current state of the economy. It will be in Hillary Clinton's interests to paint the economy as strong, while it will be to Donald Trump's advantage to play up the economic challenges America still faces.
B. Dan Wood has noted that, since the 1946 inception of the Gallup poll asking Americans to name the most important problem the country faces, the economy has typically dominated. A study by Michael S. Lewis-Beck and Tom W. Rice found that, in all but one U.S. presidential election between 1948-1988, when the unemployment rate was declining, the incumbent or his party won the presidency - but when unemployment was not improving, the incumbent or his party lost. However, in the 1992 election, President George H.W. Bush lost his bid for re-election, despite the fact that the economy had rebounded by the election. The reason for this, according to Marc Hetherington, was that negative reporting about the economy in the media altered the perceptions of voters. Other researchers have also found that media coverage of the economy can be more influential than objective economic indicators. In other words, its perceptions of the state of the economy that matter - giving both candidates an opportunity to try to shape voters' views to their advantage.
The good news for Clinton is that voters place greater emphasis on the economy as a whole, rather than their personal financial circumstances, when deciding who to vote for - a phenomenon known as "sociotropic voting." Therefore, even if individual voters are currently facing financial challenges, if Clinton can convince them that the nation's overall economic conditions or prospects are good under the current Democratic president, she stands a strong chance of winning their votes. However, Trump is unlikely to let such contentions stand without a challenge.
What is the actual state of the economy? As The New York Times recently noted, unemployment has fallen from 10 percent when President Obama took office in 2008 to 4.9 percent in August - lower than the end of President Reagan's term. The U.S. economy has grown significantly more than any other advanced nation. And the federal deficit has declined by about three quarters since President Obama took office. Unfortunately for Clinton, most Americans believe the opposite is true. What matters now is how the candidates convince Americans to view the economy in Monday's debate.