Time to check in on gas prices, stocks, and the unemployment rate - three indicators that will largely determine who wins in November. Understand, these are not the most important economic indicators; gas prices, for example, won't tell you a lot about overall growth. But all three are hugely important politically because they tend to get a disproportionate amount of news coverage and are conveniently - if not accurately - branded as reflecting something more important than a simple economic snapshot. Right now, Romney wins on gas prices, Obama on the stock market, and Obama very slightly on unemployment.
--Gas prices: Up 12.8 percent YTD. Often a volatile indicator, gasoline has been costing quite a bit more in the last couple of weeks, although for reasons of happenstance (refinery problems in Northern California and Illinois) rather than, say, energy policy. Typically, a sudden jump in gas prices has a slight drag on consumer spending (even if the actual increase only amounts to a few dollars), but more broadly it puts people in a grumpy mood about the overall state of the country. If prices keep going up over the next few weeks, as is likely, Romney can tap into that anger. Of course, prices will eventually come down - most likely after Labor Day, if past patterns prevail. In other words, Romney isn't going to win the White House because people are paying more for gas.
--U.S. unemployment rate: 8.3 percent. That's where it started in January. Then it fell a bit and rose a bit. But perhaps more significant is that the rate is lower in several battleground states. Ohio is at 7.2 percent, Iowa 5.2 percent, Wisconsin 7 percent, Virginia 5.7 percent. Even Florida is only slightly higher than the U.S. figure, at 8.6 percent. No one would suggest that Obama has a strong hand on the jobs front, despite the improvements in specific states. But the numbers have been trending downward, which would tend to nullify any advantage Romney has.
--Stocks: Dow is up 8.1 percent YTD: For whatever reason, this has been a good stretch for Wall Street, which means that individual investors are making at least some money. Even folks not in the market are taking note. Now, the connection between equities and the overall economy is iffy at best, but the market is considered, for better or worse, a de-facto economic barometer for people. So it's assumed to be a good thing if the Dow goes up and a bad thing if it goes down. If stocks keep moving higher - or at the least don't tank between now and November - it puts Obama in a strong position. This, of course, is just as ridiculous as Romney benefiting from higher gas prices, but nobody said that elections had to make sense.