September 10, 2012 at 1:00 am

'Better off' question carries risk for GOP

Many voters in Mich., other key states where economy has improved, may answer yes

Democrats cheer as President Barack Obama accepts the nomination for a second term. Unemployment, at 8.1 percent in August, hasnít been below 8 percent during his tenure. (Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images)

In 1980, Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan delivered a poignant question to voters: Are you better off than you were four years ago?

Americans weary of economic decline, joblessness and inflation under President Jimmy Carter answered a week later and ousted the Democrat from office.

More than three decades later, GOP nominee Mitt Romney and running mate Paul Ryan have again posed that question to the American people as they try to refocus the election on the economy under President Barack Obama.

But this time the answer may be a "yes" from many voters in Michigan, which has rebounded from the doldrums of a decade-long recession.

Reagan "reflected a clearly understood reality that things had gotten worse. Those conditions are different now," said Michael Traugott, University of Michigan professor of communication studies and political science.

Romney's claim "has a dubious reality. It's more of a glass half full or half empty (question) than a clear understanding that conditions are worse," he said.

The economy is Obama's greatest liability. The recession devastated Americans who lost jobs, homes, investments and dignity. Though the economy has improved since the crisis peaked, the recovery has been slow and many families have been unable to regain financial stability.

National unemployment is higher today than the 7.8 percent rate when Obama took office in January 2009. August's rate, announced Friday, was 8.1 percent, down from 8.3 percent the month before. Though the jobless rate has gradually improved from its October 2009 peak of 10 percent during Obama's term, it's hasn't been below 8 percent during Obama's tenure.

"I think the Romney campaign has made a calculated decision that the question translates into a good message for them," said Dave Dulio, chairman of political science at Oakland University. "It works for them in more states than it hurts them."

The unemployment picture is mixed in 12 battleground states in the November election.

In a third, unemployment has improved since Obama took office (Michigan, Ohio, Iowa and Indiana); in another third, it's about the same (Florida, Wisconsin, New Hampshire and Virginia); and in the remaining third, it's risen (Colorado, Pennsylvania, Nevada and North Carolina).

Unemployment is one gauge of the "are you better off" question and Michigan's jobs outlook is brighter today.

Gov. Rick Snyder, elected in 2010 with a GOP wave that took control of state government, is fond of referring to Michigan as the "comeback state" and points to recent reforms such as rewriting the business tax code. Whether voters give credit to the state GOP or Obama's rescue of the auto industry may guide their votes in November. Michigan voters "can express their anger or appreciation by voting for both federal and state officeholders," says Patrick Anderson, CEO of the Anderson Economic Group. He credits Lansing leadership for turning around the state's budget problems. Michigan suffered the most during the recession, he said, but has since rebounded faster than other Midwest states.

Once leading the nation in unemployment from 2006 to 2010, Michigan's jobless rate is now 9 percent, or 10th worst in the nation. After a decade of steady job losses with the decline in autos and manufacturing, Michigan added jobs in 2011. In 2000, Michigan had about 4.6 million jobs. The downturn bottomed out in 2010 with 3.7 million jobs.

Another positive trend: Comerica Bank's index of economic activity in Michigan spiked in June to a 10-year high. The index measures seven variables: jobs, exports, sales tax revenue, hotel occupancy, unemployment, building permits and auto production. The improvement is driven by restructuring of the auto industry and housing market gains, but the economy is also dogged by Detroit's fiscal problems, said Robert Dye, chief economist at Comerica Bank. Nonetheless, it's "a clear indication the economy is improving," he added.

Romney wins if voters focus on dissatisfaction, Michigan State University economist Charles Ballard says. Obama benefits if he shows voters Romney's prescription of tax cuts to boost the economy would make rich people richer, but not trickle down to better earnings, Ballard says.

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Denise Pallarito, special assistant to U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek, cheers last ... (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)