By Jason Lange
WASHINGTON -- America's underperforming economy has been an albatross for President Barack Obama since he took office in 2009 and likely did his Democratic party few favors in midterm elections on Tuesday -- but it may not have been the decisive factor.
Hurt by Obama's general unpopularity, Democrats lost control of the Senate while Republicans strengthened their hold over the House of Representatives. The economy may well have become less of an problem than Obama's performance in addressing a broad range of issues.
While more Americans disapprove of the president's handling of the economy than those who think he's doing a good job, the economy wasn't the bugbear it once was. Several months of wage gains and faster job creation improved Americans' impression of Obama's performance on the economy coming into the congressional polls.
%VIRTUAL-WSSCourseInline-956%One quarter of Americans strongly disapproved of Obama's economic stewardship the day before the election, according to polling firm Ipsos. That was 10 percentage points lower than the average in September, and the smallest level of reproach since the online poll began in 2012. About 15 percent strongly approved of Obama on the economy, up from 10 percent two months ago.
"As far as the economy goes, the wind appears to be blowing slightly in the direction of the Democrats," said Christopher Wlezien, a political scientist at University of Texas at Austin who has studied the role of the economy in elections.
U.S. employers have hired more than 200,000 workers in seven of the last eight months, and the jobless rate slipped below 6 percent in September for the first time since 2008.
Too Little, Too Late
To be sure, most Americans still earn less money than they did when Obama entered the White House, and a modest pickup in income growth since mid-year was too little, too late to have a major influence on the way people voted.
Edward Sanders, for example, cast his ballot in Raleigh, North Carolina for Republican Senate contender Thom Tillis, whose victory Tuesday helped give Republicans a winning margin. Sanders, 59, had voted for incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan in 2008, but he has grown frustrated with the lackluster economy.
"I care about the economy and jobs, anything that will increase the average wage in this country," he said.
Many political analysts say Obama's low overall approval rating -- which has hovered around 40 percent in Ipsos polling -- was a major factor holding Democrats back on Tuesday.
James Campbell, a political scientist at the University of Buffalo SUNY, said the low rating was likely a reflection of years of subpar economic growth. The economy has grown at an average annual rate of 1.8 percent since 2009, below historical averages.
Others, however, say that Obama's lack of popularity also draws from other factors, including his foreign policy and even his personal style.
Focused on Now
When Ipsos asked voters which political party had a better plan for the economy -- without considering a party's leaders or candidates -- Democrats had a roughly 3 percentage point lead over Republicans on Nov. 3.
Carl Klarner, a political science researcher at Harvard, said that voters have in the past appeared to focus more on what's happening in the economy immediately before an election -- not longer-term trends. While Obama's lack of popularity likely weighed on Democrats, he said, many voters were well aware that the economy has improved.
That included Republicans like Rob Bosworth whose vote for Republican Scott Walker helped the Wisconsin governor survive a challenge from Democrat Mary Burke.
"The economy is starting to turn with more substantial horsepower," said Bosworth, who sells re-manufactured engraving equipment and was sipping a beer at a bar in Hudson, Wisconsin. "It'll be interesting to see how things go moving forward with the Republican mandate."
-With additional reporting by Todd Melby in Hudson, Wisconsin, and Marti Maguire in Raleigh, North Carolina.
By Jason Lange