No American president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt has won a second term in office when the unemployment rate on Election Day topped 7.2 percent.Larry Sabato of U. Va.'s Center for Politics disagrees:
That isn’t the whole story, however. Unemployment was at 7.2% in 1984 when Ronald Reagan ran for reelection, and he won a landslide. Why? Because unemployment was falling noticeably from its recession high of 10.8% in December 1982.(via reader Warren)
George H.W. Bush lost his presidency in 1992 with an unemployment rate scarcely different from Reagan’s in 1984. Why? Because the rate had accelerated from the 5.3% when Bush was first elected. Ronald Reagan’s 1980 debate line resonated anew in 1992, to the detriment of his chosen GOP successor: "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?"
And look at the flip side of the employment coin. If unemployment were the alpha and the omega of presidential politics, then the Democrats would have won landslides in 1968 and 2000. Instead, Hubert Humphrey and Al Gore lost (the latter, one admits, on a technical knockout). HHH had as strong an employment picture as a candidate could hope to see; the nation was at almost full employment (3.4% unemployment). But the Vietnam War dominated the election, and produced the Nixon presidency. In 2000, ethics and personality arguably counted for as much as the Democrats’ low 3.9% unemployment rate, getting George W. Bush within striking range.
It’s now clear that unemployment is an imperfect forecasting tool for presidential elections.