The hallmarks of the U.S. economy over the past several years have been strong growth, low unemployment and historically high profit levels for companies. That would normally give the party in power, in this case the Republicans, a campaign boost. But the war in Iraq, terrorism and issues such as gas prices make this election year anything but normal.
If Pennsylvania's 6th Congressional District is typical, though, economic issues still hold sway with voters. The district sprawls across three counties north and west of Philadelphia. It's a mix of prosperous green suburbs, wooded rural areas, and old-line factory towns trying to adapt to the service economy. Republican Jim Gerlach has eked out victories here during the past two elections, beating Democratic opponents by just a couple of percentage points.
On a recent September day, Gerlach was at the Elks lodge in Pottsdown for lunch with the Tri-County Chamber of Commerce. Amid the backslapping and hand-shaking, there was no talk about Iraq and no mention of President Bush. The discussion focused mainly on local economic development and Gerlach's support for a new commuter rail line.
One of those in attendance, Kevin Johnson, president of a local transportation-planning firm, says that even in the middle of a war, the economy can change votes.
"Economic issues always play a role here," Johnson says. Among this crowd, it's taxes, health-care costs and, not surprisingly, gasoline prices, he says.
For the most part, says Johnson, a solid economy in the 6th District should help Gerlach, who he's planning to vote for.
Rep. Gerlach agrees. During an interview in his Washington, D.C., office, Gerlach says he thinks the economy is "an overall plus" for him. He points out that the area's unemployment rate is below the national average. And, he says, "There's growth in a lot of different sectors."
That said, Gerlach still senses an uneasiness among families about increasing costs. Until recently, that included gas prices. Now that they're headed lower, it could be "very helpful," he says.
Gasoline prices play an "outsized role in influencing the way people think about the economy and their own financial well-being and how they vote," says economist Mark Zandi.
Zandi's office at Moody's Economy.com is just outside the 6th District in the town of West Chester. When prices were hovering around $3 a gallon, says Zandi, it was a clear negative for incumbents like Gerlach. He says that appears to be changing.
"If it goes further south to $2 or $2.25 by election day," Zandi says, "that could help the incumbents out."
Zandi believes it's largely the trend line that affects a voter's sense of well-being, because people project that trend into the future. If that's the case, the recent downward trend in housing prices is likely causing some economic unease among Americans. That, along with concern about slow wage growth and rising health-care costs could trump the positive economic news of recent years.
Democratic candidate Lois Murphy, Rep. Gerlach's challenger, hopes that's just what will happen. Murphy lost to Gerlach in the 2004 election, 51 percent to 49 percent.
Economic issues are prominent in Murphy's campaign as she challenges Gerlach again this year. Murphy argues that the strong economy of the past few years has disproportionately benefited high-income Americans. She's betting that middle-income voters will make their Election Day decisions on issues that resonate very clearly at the kitchen table.
Sitting in her sparse campaign office in Narberth, a suburb just outside Philadelphia, Murphy says the families she talks to who are facing the high cost of college tuition don't feel good about the economy. Those same families felt squeezed by high gas prices this summer, she says.
"We have a lot of smart voters in this district," Murphy says, "and they understand that the economy is growing but that the growth is not broad enough and not deep enough."
Sitting on a bench on Narberth's quaint main street, Judy Schwartz, 68, who normally votes Republican, says concern about the war in Iraq is making her think twice about voting for Gerlach this year. She says economic issues may help tip her vote to Murphy.
"The automakers are laying people off in droves," she says. "People need to work." But Schwartz feels as if Bush is just focusing on overseas issues.
Even though the economy will factor into the voting equation, it's difficult to parse who might benefit most, says Zandi. The trend in gas prices now seems to be positive for incumbents. On the other hand, rising health-care costs may favor the challengers. Net it all out, and the economy is close to a draw. But it may slightly favor the party out of power — the Democrats.