People more upbeat on economy, poll finds

September 22, 2006|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske | Molly Hennessy-Fiske,Los Angeles Times

Americans have become more optimistic about the economy, and they are giving President Bush some of the credit, a new Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll shows.

Republicans running for election could benefit from the development, as voters say the economy will influence their choices in November more than any other national issue, including the war in Iraq and terrorism.

Consumer confidence fell this summer as gasoline prices peaked and the housing market weakened. Those polled in July were almost evenly split on the state of the economy, with 49 percent saying the economy was doing badly.

Now, however, the optimists outnumber the pessimists in the poll by 10 percentage points, with 54 percent saying the economy is doing well.

"There's a lot of conflicting indicators but things seem to be cruising along pretty steadily," said respondent David Busch, 38, a sales executive in Redmond, Wash., who describes himself as an independent voter. "We've seen a lot of alarmist talk about housing bubbles bursting, gas prices that are going to derail the economy that haven't materialized."

Seven weeks before the midterm elections, the economy remains voters' primary focus.

Among registered voters, 32 percent listed the economy and jobs as the most important election issue, followed by the war in Iraq (21 percent), immigration (17 percent) and health care (10 percent).

Those polled gave a variety of reasons for feeling better about the economy, including unemployment at a low 4.7 percent nationally, lower gas prices this month and an interest rate freeze by the Federal Reserve.

That could be good news for Republican candidates, as the GOP is the party in power in Washington and might be able to take some credit for the economy.

When the economy is rocky, voters traditionally punish the party in power, said Bruce Oppenheimer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University.

But when the economy is doing well, their reactions are more difficult to predict, he added.

"This year it's a little more complex to figure because it's clear that the objective measures of how the economy is doing are not striking everybody equally," Oppenheimer said.

For instance, pay is rising for some college-educated professionals, but most workers face wage stagnation, he said.

While falling gasoline prices could boost Republican candidates, he said, "The question is, will it be too little too late?"

The Times/Bloomberg poll interviewed 1,517 adults, including 1,347 registered voters, nationwide between Saturday and Tuesday under the supervision of Times Poll Director Susan Pinkus. The survey's margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Although the survey shows more than half of registered voters still disapprove of the way Bush is handling the economy, the ranks of those who approve are increasing.

Among registered voters polled, 43 percent said they approve of the president's handling of the economy, up from 38 percent in July and a January low of 37 percent.

Many of those polled, especially working-class Americans, are postponing major purchases such as cars, vacations and large appliances, unsure about their finances.

Of those polled, 64 percent said now is not a good time to make major purchases - including 81 percent of those earning less than $40,000 and 66 percent of those earning $40,000 to $60,000.

Molly Hennessy-Fiske writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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