The big question in this presidential election has been which candidate – President Barack Obama or challenger Mitt Romney – can do the best job fixing the ailing national economy.
But new research suggests that nearly half of all Americans think neither candidate will have much effect on their personal financial situation.
The new survey, released Monday by Bankrate.com, finds that 45 percent of adults nationwide don’t think the choice of president will make much of a difference to their finances.
Another 29 percent said they thought their personal situation would be better under Obama, while 20 percent said their personal situation would be better if Romney wins the election.
The survey of about 1,000 people, which was conducted Oct. 4-7 and has a margin of error of 3.7 percent, shows a significant shift in favor of Obama since June.
Back then a similar Bankrate poll found respondents were equally split, at 21 percent, on whether they’d be better off financially with Obama or Romney. In the June poll, slightly more people also said it didn’t matter much to their personal finances who won.
The pessimism about the ability of the president to affect one’s personal finances is surprising, said Erik Snowberg, professor of economics and political science at the California Institute of Technology.
“I’m surprised because they’re right,” said Snowberg, who has done extensive research on people’s perceptions of the economy and their voting habits.
He said research has shown that the president’s party affiliation has a minimal effect on the stock market, a key vehicle for improving financial measures like retirement savings. Politics also don’t seem to make a huge difference in moving the unemployment rate, he added.
Still, the Bankrate poll did show a contradiction: Despite their skepticism about whether the president can help them personally, more than six in 10 people said their personal economic situation is a key factor in their voting decision.
Claes Bell, a senior analyst for Bankrate.com, said he thinks there is widespread pessimism about whether anything will help after five years of difficult economic times.
“I think people are maybe feeling a little bit discouraged at this point and wondering whether either candidate has a policy prescription that’s going to work, or even if a policy prescription can do anything at all to improve the financial position of the average American,” he said.
Those who said they were doing better financially than a year ago were more likely to say they’d do better under Obama. Those who reported being worse off financially than a year ago were more likely to say they’d do better under Romney.
“You’re seeing the effects of people’s own personal financial outcomes influencing their vote,” Bell said.
Snowberg, the Caltech professor, said that when pollsters ask about economic issues like this so close to the election, people’s more general feelings about the candidates tend to come through.
“They know that what you’re actually asking them is a political question and so they answer them as if you’re asking them, ‘Do you like Obama or Romney better?’” he said.
Snowberg doubted that last Friday’s unemployment report, which showed a substantial drop in the unemployment rate to under 8 percent, is having a big impact on people’s feelings.
His research has shown that people tend to judge the employment situation based on their own experience, rather than more general data. For example, they tend to think the unemployment is higher if they are unemployed themselves, or if they are in a group, such as low-skilled workers, that has more trouble finding work.
“Really what matters for people is how they perceive the economy is going,” he said.