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The Jobs Report and Conventional Wisdom

The jobs report is out; 171,000 jobs were created in October and the unemployment rate rose to 7.9 percent, and the last two job totals were revised upward. The two political camps will do what they do best and spin like a windmill; if we could hook campaign surrogates to generators we’d have alternative energy to burn. One side will talk numbers, the other will talk rate.

This is the last piece of serious economic news before the election; it tends to help the President. To some degree his campaign has already benefited from this trend; his strength in Ohio has something to do with improved economic conditions in the Buckeye State.

One thing to note: the old conventional wisdom held that voters didn’t pay much attention to late breaking economic news. As recently as the 1992 contest between Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush, the conventional wisdom held that voters ‘took a snapshot’ of economic conditions six to nine months before the election. In that year, an economic recovery was already well under way in November, but Bush’s defeat was widely attributed to the lag between voter perception and economic reality.

Now, that pattern seems to have changed. Voters seem to be much more attuned to current conditions, and President Obama’s re-election hopes hinge more on today’s number than on the numbers last May.

This looks to be part of a larger pattern: the acceleration of the news cycle and the massive proliferation of news outlets in the last twenty years has changed the relationship between public opinion and news. We process information faster than we used to.

If true, there’s an interesting implication for all the election forecasting models competing for our attention at this point in the political cycle. If the behavior of voters changes from cycle to cycle, forecasting models that work today won’t necessarily work next time around.

People are not as predictable as technocrats and forecasting wizards would like to think. And forecasting models in politics and economics will work until, quite suddenly, they don’t.

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