Friday’s Numbers: Does Anybody Still Care?

by Stuart Rothenberg October 5, 2012 · 9:11 AM EDT

A few months ago, I expected this Friday to be a crucial day in the presidential race. After all, it would be the day when September's unemployment and new jobs numbers would be released, right in the heart of the contest.

But now, it's far from clear that those numbers will mean anything. The voters will soon tell us whether they care at all.

While jobs and the economy remain the top concern of most Americans, that issue has not cut the way it typically has in past campaigns. Despite months of economic news that has ranged from disappointing to depressing, President Barack Obama's prospects for re-election look surprisingly good now.

August's uninspiring job numbers - the unemployment rate was 8.1 percent, and only 96,000 jobs were created - did nothing to destroy the president's bounce coming out of the Democratic National Convention.

Instead, voters seemed to ignore the economic news, apparently convinced that, yes, the jobs outlook is bad and probably will stay that way for months, but, no, Obama isn't to blame and at least deserves more time to fix the problem.

With just more than a month to go until Election Day, the president leads Republican challenger Mitt Romney by a few points nationally, but the lead is even larger in some key swing states.

While a majority (52 percent) of respondents in a Sept. 26-29 ABC News/Washington Post poll disapproved of Obama's handling of the economy, that number is down slightly from late August (56 percent) and down significantly from a year earlier (61 percent).

The president's overall job approval has also inched up, from 47 percent in late August to 50 percent in the most recent survey. Romney and Obama are now tied in that survey as to which one is more trusted to handle the economy - hardly the place where the Republican needs to be, or should be, considering the state of the economy.

The results of the Sept. 12-16 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll weren't all that different from the ABC News/Washington Post survey, and a new (Sept. 26-30) NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed growing optimism about the economy.

A plurality of respondents (44 percent) said the economy will get better during the next year - up from 36 percent in August and 27 percent in July - and 57 percent of those surveyed said the economy is recovering, compared with 39 percent who said it is not.

All of this optimism comes in the face of decidedly mixed news.

Yes, the Labor Department revised job numbers for the year ending in March, showing that more than 400,000 jobs were added than was initially reported. And the Dow Jones industrial average, often seen as a measure of the broader stock market, now sits at more than 13,400, a reflection of investors' euphoria over the Federal Reserve's indefinite quantitative easing, which keeps interest rates low by pumping money into the system.

But there continues to be so much disheartening economic news that it is difficult to be optimistic about the economy.

As August's jobs number demonstrated, there is little evidence that we are on the cusp of an economic rebound. The gross domestic product grew at an adjusted rate of just 1.3 percent for the second quarter, and orders for durable goods fell 13 percent from July to August.

Caterpillar Inc., one of the 30 companies in the Dow Jones industrial average, recently cut its profit outlook because of slowing demand, as did both FedEx and Norfolk Southern, two companies in the Dow Transportation Index.

Europe's economic problems and the economic slowdown in China should add to worries about the U.S. economy.

International news is also not good. The terrorist attack in Libya, talk of a return of the Taliban in Afghanistan when U.S. troops leave and continued tension in the Middle East and concern about Iran's nuclear program all add up to a considerable headache for the United States.

And yet, a narrow majority of Americans apparently have concluded that the president has made some progress with the economy and deserves another four years - at least for the moment.

The question is now whether another bad economic report will change the trajectory of the election. If so, how bad do the numbers have to be? Would another month of fewer than 100,000 new jobs shock voters into reassessing their conclusions? Fewer than 50,000 new jobs? Negative job growth?

One thing seems sure: If Friday's numbers show even a modest growth of new of jobs, probably in excess of 150,000, the report will likely damage Romney's chances of overtaking the president during the final month of the campaign.

Even if Friday's report gives Romney and the GOP more ammunition to argue that the Obama administration has failed to turn the economy around, it's not clear that enough voters will be listening. They may simply conclude either that Obama needs more time or that there is little reason to believe that Romney would do better.

Still, most political junkies will be watching Friday morning, both to hear the jobs numbers but also to watch whether those numbers have any effect on swing voters. This has been a strange political year. As always, it's wise to expect the unexpected.