WASHINGTON -- With high political season upon us, economic forecasters cannot resist the temptation to look for a formula to pick George Bush or Bill Clinton, especially when the sour economy is supposed to be the hot topic in this year's election.
The forecasters with Blue Chip Economic Indicators, a group of top-notch economists from universities and financial institutions, have come up with their call: Mr. Clinton.
And the National Association of Business Economists, meeting last week in Dallas, decided 2-to-1 that Mr. Clinton would win, even though 60% said they believe the President has superior policies for promoting stable growth with low inflation in the years ahead.
A contrarian or a cynic would say that, considering the source of these predictions, Mr. Bush will turn out to be the winner. After all, many of these forecasters are the same people who assured us back in 1991 that a sound recovery was in the works. They said the same thing earlier this year, confidently predicting 3% growth in the second half of the year, and debating when the Federal Reserve would begin raising interest rates.
Still, it is tempting to try and tie the public malaise over the economy with the presidential campaign. One interesting forecast of a Clinton victory comes from John Silvia, first vice president and chief economist for Kemper Financial Services, in Chicago.
Mr. Silvia did something simple but logical by focusing on the trend in the unemployment rate in the months before the election. He found that in all but one of the last eight elections, dating back to 1960, the incumbent party won when the jobless rate was going down and lost when the rate was going up.
Take 1960, when Richard Nixon of the incumbent Republican party lost to John F. Kennedy. Nine months before the election the unemployment rate was 4.8%: when voters went to the polls it was 6.1%.
In 1980, incumbent Jimmy Carter lost to Republican challenger Ronald Reagan as the jobless rate advanced from 6.3% nine months before the election to 7.5% by the time voters made up their minds.
The one exception is 1968, when Hubert Humphrey of the incumbent Democrats was defeated by Richard Nixon. At the time, the economy was booming and jobs were so plentiful that the unemployment rate was only 3.4% going into the election, down from 3.8% six months earlier. But that vote, says Mr. Silvia, was a referendum on the Vietnam War, and the economy was not an issue.
The message for the President is not a good one, according to Mr. Silvia's analysis. The unemployment rate has edged up from 7.3% in February, nine months before this year's election, to 7.6% in August. The job market is saying bye-bye to Mr. Bush.
"It absolutely makes no difference if the party was Republican or Democrat," says Mr. Silvia in a market letter to clients. "Americans vote for jobs."
Indeed, the job market is a powerful force that shapes people's perceptions of how things are going, and right now the signals are anything but encouraging for the Republicans. Labor Department figures show that since the beginning of the year, the number of private sector jobs has actually fallen slightly.
And, says Mr. Silvia, consumer confidence surveys from the University of Michigan and elsewhere show that public sentiment about government economic policy is at the lowest level in 10 years. That does not bode well for the incumbent Republicans.
"People will elect anyone who appears to be doing a good job, and they'll turn out anyone who doesn't appear to be doing a good job," Mr. Silvia said in an interview last week.
Indeed, the latest Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll found voters inclined to give Mr. Clinton higher marks on managing the economy, creating jobs, improving health care and education, and reducing the federal deficit. The same poll also found that voters continue to give Mr. Bush higher marks on personal character. So it is not surprising that the Democrats are seeking to stress the economy while the Republicans are running a character campaign.
The GOP could still win if it convinces voters that Mr. Clinton's personality is what they should care about. But it is an interesting sign of the times that the Republicans, who have successfully championed a market philosophy in formulating public policy, now find themselves to be the economic bad guys in the eyes of so many.