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Analysis: Could it be 'the economy, stupid' again?

  • Story Highlights
  • The economy is an extremely or very important issue for 82 percent of voters
  • More voters ranked the economy as a top issue, over the Iraq war and terrorism
  • Sen. Clinton leading among voters who say the economy is extremely important
  • Next Article in Politics »
From Bill Schneider
CNN Senior Political Analyst
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- What's the number one issue to voters right now?

art.clinton.carville.gi.jpg

James Carville made the phrase "It's the economy, stupid" famous during Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential run.

"It's the economy, stupid" -- a phrase Clinton advisor James Carville made famous during President Clinton's successful 1992 presidential race.

It's possible that the top issue in next year's election will not be Iraq or terrorism.

According to a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation's poll conducted November 2-4, the economy now tops the list of the issues voters now rate as most important in their vote for president, with 82 percent of those surveyed saying it was extremely or very important. That's just ahead of the war in Iraq, which 80 percent said was an extremely or very important factor in how they will decide to vote.

Rounding out the top five issues were health care, 76 percent; terrorism, 76 percent and the situation in Iran, 73 percent.

It's more than just high gas prices, which, at 67 percent, comes out a little lower on the list.

The poll's margin of error was plus-or-minus 3 percent.

"The economy is soft, it's struggling, it's going to remain weak right through next spring or summer." said economist Mark Zandi of Moody's Economy.com.

What's driving it?

"At the heart of our current economic problems is the evaporating housing market -- the plunge in sales, construction and most importantly, house prices," Zandi explained.

The rule in politics is, when the economy is bad, the economy is the issue. That was certainly the case in 1980 when Ronald Reagan got elected, and in 1992 when Bill Clinton won on: "It's the economy, stupid."

At the time of those two elections, only about a third of Americans said things were going well in the country.

Compare that with the last three presidential elections. In 1996, 2000 and 2004, solid majorities said things were going well. Economic anxiety was not a driving force in those elections.

And this year? It started out well in January, when 57 percent of Americans thought things were going well, but that number has been dropping all year. It's now only 42 percent -- meaning, people are getting anxious. More than two thirds of Americans expect a recession in the next year.

"Job growth has slowed over the course of the past six or twelve months. At this current rate of job growth unemployment will continue to rise," Zandi said.

The political impact?

"Tough times can breed fear, and Hillary Clinton and the Democrats are using those fears to push an agenda that is tired, dangerous, and will rob us of economic freedom," Republican presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain said in October. Video Watch how the economy could impact the elections »

But Democrats can argue things were pretty good when Bill Clinton was president.

"When this president came into office we had a balanced budget and a surplus," Sen. Hillary Clinton said in October. "And I'm proud of my husband for working those eight years to make that happen."

Right now, the Democrats are winning that argument. The more important you think the economy is, the more likely you are to vote Democratic.

In a trail heat between the two front-runners, Hillary Clinton leads Rudy Giuliani by 27 points among people who feel the economy is an extremely important issue -- 61 percent to 24 percent.

She's only 5 points ahead among those who say the economy is very important -- 51-46 percent.

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Giuliani leads among those who say the economy is moderately important, or not important -- 52 percent for Giuliani to 38 percent for Clinton.

National security issues like Iraq and Iran often divide Democrats. But when you have a weak economy and a Republican president, that's when Democrats find their voice. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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