Foes scour economic data in search of edge

In governor’s race, no item too small

By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / September 1, 2010

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At 10:39 a.m. yesterday, a small Beacon Hill wire service posted a one-paragraph item on its website reporting that foreclosures in Massachusetts had jumped almost 80 percent in July from a year prior.

Less than a half-hour later, ever-vigilant aides to Republican gubernatorial candidate Charles D. Baker began Tweeting and re-Tweeting the news to try to undercut Governor Deval Patrick’s argument that the state economy is heading in the right direction.

“Foreclosures up 80% in MA during the past year,’’ Amy Goodrich, Baker’s communications director, wrote on Twitter. “Def not ‘on the mend,’ but if that’s ‘on the move’ it’s in the wrong direction.’’

Such is the state of the Massachusetts governor’s race these days, where no shred of economic news goes un-Tweeted, un-blasted in press releases, or un-mentioned on the campaign trail. It’s a never-ending effort to spin economic news to bolster the candidates’ fundamental political narratives.

In Patrick’s world, the state is experiencing six straight months of job gains, with 60,000 new jobs, and ranks third in the nation in job creation this year. “The economy is responding to our strategy, which is education, inno vation, and infrastructure,’’ Patrick said after the most recent job numbers came out. His campaign produced web ads emphasizing the same point.

In Baker’s world, 150,000 fewer residents are working than four years ago, the unemployment rate has nearly doubled since Patrick took office, and a recent drop in the state’s consumer confidence level is “news of a failed recovery.’’ Four New England states having lower jobless rates, his campaign asserted on Monday, renders Patrick’s optimistic economic assessments “ridiculous.’’

At this point, the campaigns are trying less to influence voters, who are paying scant attention to the constant stream of Tweets and e-mails, than to influence opinion-makers, insiders, and the press.

Economists, however, dismiss the endless skirmishes, arguing that the state’s economy is influenced by large forces outside the governor’s control, and that using one index to either hail or disparage his leadership is misleading.

“We’re not looking at one data point in isolation,’’ said Gus Faucher, an economist who studies the state’s economy at Moody’s Analytics. “We’re looking at trends and all the data together . . . to give a broader picture of where the Massachusetts economy is going.’’

The candidates’ aides, however, carry out their arguments minute by minute and day by day, underscoring the extent to which they believe that the race, will be won or lost on economic turf, even more so than in a typical political contest.

Despite the rhetoric from both camps, economists say the overall economic picture is mixed: Massachusetts enjoys a high bond rating and is recovering faster than other states, but still faces a long and uncertain path to cut its unemployment rate to prerecession levels.

“Massachusetts’ economy, as bad as it is, is better than most other states, and that continues to be true,’’ said David G. Tuerck, an economist who heads the conservative Beacon Hill Institute.

“But the local, state, and regional economy is pretty much a captive of the national economy, so there’s not much to be said there. No uptick or downturn of the jobs number is very consequential as far as the qualifications of these candidates are concerned,’’ he said.

Tuerck said he agrees with state Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill, an independent candidate, and with Baker that Patrick’s tax and regulatory policies, as well as his support of the Cape Wind project, could hurt the state’s ability to attract businesses.

But “it’s not plausible to say that Deval Patrick can do much harm or much good in terms of rescuing the state from the overall picture nationally,’’ Tuerck said.

Although all the candidates want to reduce the state’s 9 percent unemployment rate by five or six points, “that’s something you can’t fix outside of Washington,’’ he said.

Michael D. Goodman — an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth who edits MassBenchmarks, an economic journal — reflected a similar viewpoint.

“The future economic trajectory of the state is going to be a function of international economic and national economic developments and federal decisions, and a lot of these day-to-day economic conditions in the state are driven by forces outside of the control of state officials,’’ he said.

“There are certainly policies that can make a valuable difference, but these large economic challenges are being played out at a much larger scale,’ Goodman said.

That has not stopped the candidates and their aides from waging battles on anything that seems to fit their platforms, including yesterday’s jab on foreclosures, based on an item in State House News Service.

Faucher said that even though candidates try to frame economic indicators for their own ends, voters’ perceptions will ultimately be shaped by their personal experiences.

“You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,’’ Faucher said. “They know if they’ve lost a job or if their neighbors have lost a job or can’t find one.’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at

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