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Economy a big issue on this big day // THE ECONOMY

The next president of the United States will have to convince people like Geri Wimmers of Clearwater that he can make things better.

After 12 years with Lockheed Martin in Largo, Wimmers lost her job two years ago in one of several massive layoffs at the defense contractor. At a time when she should be looking forward to retirement, Wimmers, 50, is looking for work.

She also is looking for somebody new in the White House who can turn the country around and help people like her.

"We have to get back to our grass-roots," said Wimmers, who said she probably will vote for Bob Dole because of his experience. "This country was built on people helping people, and companies were built on . . . being loyal (to employees.) There is none of that anymore."

Throughout the state, a lot of frustrated Floridians feel like Geri Wimmers.

And beginning with today's GOP primary, they are turning to the ballot box for solutions.

If four years ago it was "the economy, stupid" _ as Bill Clinton aptly put it _ it apparently still is the economy that is on voters' minds. Even though the typical measures of the economy are growing and inflation is low, something is wrong.

Just ask any of the tens of thousands of laid-off workers like Wimmers.

In a recent poll by newspapers and television stations across Florida, registered voters resoundingly said the economy and jobs were their most important concerns. That wasn't surprising, given it is exactly what voters have been saying in exit polls around the country in the first set of primaries.

Politicians are picking up on the message.

Pat Buchanan and his followers have criss-crossed the state, blasting foreigners for taking Floridians' jobs. Steve Forbes' supporters are pushing his idea of a flat-tax system and how it will increase your savings and your spending dollar. Bob Dole, who virtually ignored economic issues at the start of his campaign, has started chastising giant companies for axing workers.

Even Bill Clinton, who should be feeling fairly good about the economy's performance, has been trying to get at what's bugging American workers.

"There's no doubt the economy is more important (in the election) today than in was six months ago," said Tom Slade, chairman of the Florida Republican Party. "And there are those who are forecasting that it won't be the best of times in the months ahead.

"If they're correct," he said, "you'll see the economy become extremely crucial in this presidential election."

"The anxious class'

It's not supposed to be this way.

The economy is growing, slowly and steadily. Unemployment is at a low 5.8 percent nationally _ an estimated 5 percent or so in Tampa Bay. Inflation also is low, under 3 percent nationally.

The stock market and corporate profits keep hitting record highs. And even consumer confidence in Tampa Bay and elsewhere _ while not spectacular _ is relatively robust.

How then, with perennially hot issues like abortion, crime and education woes still around, has the economy suddenly become the dominant issue in the race?

It's because voters put less stock in what they are told about the economy than how they feel about the economy. Politicians, led by Buchanan, are simply addressing peoples' concerns.

As a scholar at the Jerome Levy Economics Institute at Bard College in New York, Charles Whalen has studied what he calls the "anxious class" of working America _ the under-employed, the under-paid, the insecure.

What Whalen found is scary:

The poorest 40 percent of American families have seen their incomes decline since 1973. The middle 40 percent have seen their incomes remain stagnant, while only the top 20 percent have seen their incomes rise.

It takes nearly 2{ months on average to find a job today. A decade ago, it took 1{ months on average, while in the 1960s, it took only about 2{ weeks.

Holding multiple jobs is more common in the United States than it is in any other country. It's not because U.S. residents like to work but because they need to work harder to make ends meet.

Statistics from other research are just as alarming.

Last year, nearly 439,900 people across the nation lost their jobs, according to the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. That's equal to nearly half the population of Pinellas County.

And in a series called "The Downsizing of America," the New York Times found that more than 43-million jobs have been eliminated in the United States since 1979, as companies merged, as defense contractors ran out of work, as executives made wholesale employee cuts to improve profitability.

Unemployment numbers have not been affected drastically because people eventually find new jobs. Often, however, they have to work longer or hold down two or more jobs to make up for the income lost with their previous job.

"What economists have focused on for years is unemployment and gross domestic product growth," said Whalen, the Bard College economist. "The problem is, just having good GDP growth and low unemployment doesn't mean people are feeling good."

People don't have to look far to find reasons not to feel good about the economy.

Seemingly every day, some big company announces it is laying off thousands of workers. AT&T in January axed 40,000 people.

Closer to home, Florida Power said last year it will cut 1,200 jobs over four years. Anheuser Bush laid off 375 and closed its Tampa brewery. Defense contractors Lockheed Martin and Honeywell have eliminated thousands of local jobs over the past few years.

Replacing many of those high-paying jobs in the Tampa Bay area have been lower-paying clerical and telemarketing jobs and unstable service-sector employment.

In a poll for its series, the New York Times found that nearly three-quarters of all households have had a close encounter with layoffs since 1980. In a third of all households, a family member has lost a job.

Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political science professor, saw similar results around Tampa Bay.

"When I go out and address different groups, I routinely ask people, "How many of you know someone who has either lost a job or had to take a part-time job to make ends meet?'

" she said. "Invariably, three-quarters to 80 percent of the room raises their hands.

"The public just doesn't believe the official government statistics anymore," MacManus said. "When they see the statistics on the evening news that the economy has this great growth rate, and the next thing they hear is that AT&T is laying off 40,000 people, it just doesn't compute."

"A real horse race'

How then, will America's angst over the economy figure into who becomes president?

Typically, when the economy is strong and consumer confidence is stable, an incumbent president or his chosen successor gets re-elected. (Please see chart, 4A.) In 1984, riding a strong economy, Ronald Reagan was re-elected. The same economic boom pushed his vice president, George Bush, into office in 1988.

But in 1990, the economy stumbled and eventually slipped into a recession. Bush never recovered, even though the economy had started a slow rebound by the time of the 1992 election.

Under Clinton's watch, the economy has grown, though not spectacularly. Consumer confidence has been hurt by corporate downsizing and stagnant wage growth but is still relatively stable and a lot better than under Bush.

Florida's current economic numbers suggest Clinton should have a pretty good showing in Florida, predicts Tom Fullerton, economist at the University of Florida's Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

"Florida tends to vote Republican in presidential elections," Fullerton said. "But this year the economy is at a point where (Clinton) has the opportunity to turn it into a real horse race."

But then again, as displaced workers like Geri Wimmers and others say, the economy isn't just about numbers anymore.

"It's a lesson that George Bush learned the hard way," said Steven Wagner, vice president of Republican polling group Luntz Research Co. "It doesn't matter if economists say there is no recession.

"If people feel there is a recession, then there is a recession.' "

_ Times staff writers Stephen Nohlgren, Teresa Burney, Sarah Cohen and Carolyn Hardnett contributed to this report.

Are you better off today than you were four years ago?

Ronald Reagan coined the phrase, and with the Republican primary today, many voters may be asking themselves the same question. Are Tampa Bay area residents better off today than they were four years ago? Here's at least part of the answer, based on data for the bay area in 1992 and projections for 1996.

1992 1996+

Per capita income+ $15,481 $17,074

Unemployment rate 7.2 5.1

Inflation rate++ 2.9 2.9

New home starts 11,342 13,735

+ Real income, adjusted for inflation

++ National

Sources: Unviersity of Florida Bureau of Economic and Business Research, Bank of America.