WASHINGTON – On any given Election Day for the past two decades, the old Bill Clinton campaign mantra of, "It's the economy, stupid," would have held up as THE defining issue. Jobs, housing, taxes -- pick one, all or more, and it was sure to hit home with voters.
But with Ebola, terror threats and scandals dominating the news -- and Wall Street continuing its record climb -- it might be somewhat surprising that as House, Senate and gubernatorial candidates head into the final weekend of campaigning before next Tuesday's elections, pocketbook issues still resonate most with voters.
The latest Fox News poll shows 43 percent of voters believing the economy is the most important issue facing the country, far outpacing health care and foreign policy. And while Americans view the economy more positively than they used to, just one-in-five would give it good marks.
"The economy is important and it's always a main driver," Lara Brown, associate professor at the Graduate School of Political management at George Washington University, said. And despite upticks in financial data, "Americans just don't feel like the economy is getting better and until there are many evidences of it in their own lives, they don't see it," she said.
Elizabeth Sanders, election expert and government professor at Cornell University, said Democrats have suffered as President Obama has turned his attention away from the economy and toward other pressing issues.
"A president, I think, simply can't manage multiple wars and pay attention to the economy and the complex domestic institutions he's responsible for," she said in a recent Cornell paper. "So it's no wonder that in year six, all the chickens have come home to roost and the president's party seems doomed to pay the price of the endless, costly, cycle of wars that demand precious attention stolen from domestic policy implementation."
The economy is a tricky topic for both parties. While Democrats can point to a steady drop in the unemployment rate -- the percentage of Americans reported to be out of work -- Republicans point to the number of Americans who have stopped looking for work or are under-employed, and other less-rosy news, like modest economic growth.
So while the economy remains top-of-mind for many voters, a crisp economic message in the muddy recovery is difficult to craft.
And without a clear message, Democrats in particular face a hard sell convincing voters that better times are here. For instance, despite a surge of new data showing the U.S. economy has moved to solid ground following years of uncertainty, "seven in 10 Americans rate the nation's economy negatively and just 28 percent say it's getting better," according to a new ABC News/Washington Post poll.
But data shows the "fundamentals of the economy are stronger now," Gus Faucher, a senior economist at PNC Financial Services, told MarketWatch. "We don't have the same drag from government-spending cuts. Corporate balance sheets are pretty good. Households have less debt. The economy is adding 200,000 jobs a month."
With Obama's job approval and discontent with Congress hitting new lows -- and Democratic candidates shunning the president during their campaigns -- convincing voters that the economic tide has turned seems a near impossible task.
Still, Obama persists, telling a recent crowd at an event at Northwestern University that the midterms should be a referendum on "two starkly different visions" for the economy, arguing that it's "stronger today than it was when I took office," and that progress "has been hard, but it has been steady and it is real."
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., told the New York Times that "whether it's addressing his constituency on things they most care about or whether it's helping us in the midterm elections, the economy is the right thing to talk about," adding: "I know the president has had a lot of other things on his plate, but to keep the economy front and center is where America is at."
In fact, the roadmap to long-term economic health still needs a lot of work.
For example, even though the country's unemployment rate is down -- 5.9 percent in September, down from 7.2 percent a year earlier -- the figure fails to tell the whole story. The number does not reveal how many Americans have stopped looking for work or address people who are working but earning less.
Here's one window into a less-active job market: The labor participation rate, which measures the percentage of adults who are employed or actively looking for work, is 62.7 percent -- the lowest it's been in 36 years.
The Federal Reserve, meanwhile, has kept interest rates near zero, signaling inflation may be too low and worker wages too stagnant.
Retail sales ahead of the holiday season also are showing signs of stress. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., recently cut its annual sales forecast and predicted slower profit growth over the next three years.
Some polling shows voters generally trust Republicans more to execute a full economic recovery.
In a recent George Washington University Battleground Poll, voters by 49-42 percent said Republicans likely would do a better job addressing economic concerns over their Democratic counterparts.
Democrats still are hoping to get voters to give them some credit for the economic bright spots. It remains a key issue in next Tuesday's midterms, where 36 out of 50 state governors and more than one-third of the Senate as well as all 435 seats in the House of Representatives are up for grabs.
In Virginia, Democratic Sen. Mark Warner spent much of his second debate with GOP challenger Ed Gillespie promoting his economic policies.
"Everything in my career has been about creating jobs," Warner said, adding that, if elected, he would promote economic development and job growth in the state.
Gillespie wasn't buying it.
"Sen. Warner voted for the failed stimulus: $1 trillion, wasted money. He voted for the excessive regulations in the Dodd-Frank bill that are making it hard for small businesses to get capital and get loans," he argued.
In Georgia's tight Senate race, GOP candidate David Perdue told Fox News that the "number one thing that we need to be talking about is who's going to go to the Senate and add value to the debate of how to get the economy going to get people back to work again right here in Georgia."
Perdue's general message has been echoed nationally by Republicans looking to unseat Democrats.
In New Mexico, new polls show that GOP challenger Allen Weh has narrowed a double-digit gap against Democratic incumbent Sen. Tom Udall. A Vox Populi poll, which puts Udall up only 4 points over Weh, also shows voters in the state are motivated by the economy and jobs.
Public-sector economic forecasters, including the Congressional Budget Office and the Federal Reserve, meanwhile, have revised down their projections for U.S. economic growth. In June, the Fed amended its projection for annual GDP growth to 2.3 percent, down from 3 percent, after disappointing first-quarter growth, lending concern to why the U.S. economy still hasn't made up lost economic ground from the recent recession.
Brown said that if Ebola and ISIS fears hadn't flared, candidates would be focusing on these economic issues more.
"Americans want to feel safe about asking for a raise and not fearing they'll be fired," Brown said. "They want their neighbors to have jobs, they want to feel safe about buying a house, not losing equity, not losing their job."