PRINCETON, NJ -- Forty percent of Americans believe the U.S. economy is growing, up from 27% last April and 3% in 2008. While this represents a major shift in economic perceptions over the last four years, nearly half of Americans, 46%, still say the economy is in either a recession or a depression. An additional 13% say it is slowing down.
Negative perceptions of the economy were already the dominant view in January 2008. These become significantly worse in September 2008 -- after the start of the global financial crisis -- when many more Americans said the economy was in a recession or depression than merely slowing. Since then, fewer Americans have said the economy is slowing or in a recession or depression, while more have said it is growing.
Americans' increasing positivity is widespread, given that optimism that the economy is growing has increased fairly evenly across the nation's major social, regional, and political subgroups.
Politics Play a Role in Economic Assessment
Despite these gains, the only groups who mostly (50% or more) believe the economy is growing today are those with, perhaps, the political motivation to do so: Democrats, nonwhites, and self-described liberals. By the same token, Republicans and conservatives, who may be reluctant to praise the economy under a Democratic president, are least likely to say the economy is growing. The reverse pattern was seen in 2008 under President George W. Bush.
Perhaps troubling for President Obama and other incumbent officeholders seeking re-election this year: political independents' reading of the economy is closer to Republicans' than to Democrats'. Just over a third of independents say the economy is growing, while about half say it is in a recession or depression.
Increased Perceptions of Economic Growth Mirror Rise in Economic Confidence
The longer-term trend in Americans' perceptions of whether the economy is growing correlates strongly with their fundamental perceptions of U.S. economic conditions, as summarized in Gallup's Economic Confidence Index. Economic confidence bottomed out in late 2008 but has since improved.
More specifically, the 40% now saying the economy is growing conforms with the 38% to 42% of Americans telling Gallup in recent days that the economy is "getting better," in one of the two questions that make up the Gallup Economic Confidence Index. At the same time, the 46% saying the economy is in a recession or depression is also similar to the percentage who rate current economic conditions as "poor," a response from the other index component.
Americans' perceptions of the economy have been improving, but are still not positive on balance. That finding has been evident in Gallup's Economic Confidence Index for some time, and is reinforced in this update of how Americans describe the current state of the economy.
The fact that the majority of Americans believe the economy is either slowing or in a recession/depression is out of sync with government data showing the U.S. economy has grown for 10 consecutive quarters, since the second half of 2009. However, that divergence is reminiscent of the public's mood 20 years ago, when George H.W. Bush sought re-election as the country was coming out of a recession. Although the economy was demonstrably recovering in 1992, Americans still felt it was ailing, Bush failed to fully recognize that during his re-election campaign, and voters failed to reward him with a second term. There may be lessons in that for Obama to heed today.
Results for this USA Today/Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted Feb. 16-19, 2012, with a random sample of 1,014 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.
For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones and cellular phones, with interviews conducted in Spanish for respondents who are primarily Spanish-speaking. Each sample includes a minimum quota of 400 cell phone respondents and 600 landline respondents per 1,000 national adults, with additional minimum quotas among landline respondents by region. Landline telephone numbers are chosen at random among listed telephone numbers. Cell phone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.
Samples are weighted by gender, age, race, Hispanic ethnicity, education, region, adults in the household, and phone status (cell phone only/landline only/both, cell phone mostly, and having an unlisted landline number). Demographic weighting targets are based on the March 2011 Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older non-institutionalized population living in U.S. telephone households. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting and sample design.
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.
For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit www.gallup.com.