It’s the economy, stupid — sort of

With the economy looming as such an important issue in the election (as it usually is), pundits like to look at poll data about which candidate would likely “handle” the economy the best. When this is done in early primary states, they typically find that the winner of a given primary is trusted more on economic issues by the voters in that primary than his or her rivals. Thus, New Hampshire voters trusted McCain more than Romney, while Michigan voters had more faith in Romney’s economic stewardship.
So, are primary voters preferring McCain (or Romney) because they think he’ll do a better job on the economy? Or do they think McCain (or Romney) will do a better job on the economy because they prefer him?
My strong sense is that it’s the latter — preference drives perception of economic soundness. Voters as a group probably have little idea about the comparative economic acumen, or the substantive economic views, of McCain and Romney. But they do know which of the two they like more and which of the two they trust more, in general. That candidate is likely to become the one they think will do the best job with the economy.
In the general election, the analysis is somewhat different. Many voters have a firm view as to which party does better with the economy. Moreover, the differences between the candidates will often be pronounced enough that many voters can adjudicate between them. But when it comes to deciding between Romney and McCain, the economy is probably the “tail,” not the dog, even among voters who say the economy is the issue most important to them.
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