ATLANTA — It has become a cliche: It's the economy, stupid.

That was the Clinton campaign's mantra during its victorious 1992 operation. It is also the hope of every insurgent candidate in hard times, the reassurance for every incumbent when times are good.

And, in the hours before this year's election, with growth sluggish and post-recession unemployment still high, it is the presumptive explanation for any races in which Democrats go down: They were dragged to the bottom trying to haul the weight of the economy.

Of course, nothing is final until the ballots are counted.

But doesn't it make sense? When people are frustrated, cash-strapped and fearful, wouldn't they be inclined to reject whoever is in power? And when they are securely employed, well-paid and watching their home value soar and their portfolio bulge, wouldn't they be more likely to accept the status quo?

Yet a look at the history says the economy-electoral link is not always so tight.

First, consider a couple of pivotal mid-term elections when, as now, a sitting president feared for his support on Capitol Hill.

In 1982, two years after Ronald Reagan had won a convincing victory, at least partly on his calls for American resurgence, the economy was struggling to emerge from a painful recession.

The unemployment rate was 10.4 percent — up a third in a year and still climbing. The cliche says that the president's people would get their, um, hat handed to them. And sure enough: The Republicans lost 26 seats in the House of Representatives. Case closed? Well, no.

Look at the worst mid-term drubbing of a president's party in the past half century: 1994. In what was dubbed The Republican Revolution, Clinton's party lost a stunning 54 seats in the House, and Newt Gingrich became Speaker.

The economy must have been abysmal, right?

Wrong. The unemployment rate was 5.8 percent and dropping. The economy had added 3.7 million jobs in a year. The federal deficit was shrinking. And the president's party got pounded.

Sometimes the economy-election link meshes nicely. In 1980, the economy was in trouble. The incumbent president and his party lost big-time. In 1984, the economy was picking up. The incumbent president won 49 states.

Other times, there's a disconnect. In 1986, the economy was growing, but the president's party lost five House seats. In 1988, the economy was good, the incumbent party won the White House, but lost ground in Congress.

In 1996, there was an improving economy. The president was re-elected, and his party did well.

Of course, there's another piece of conventional wisdom that says that, in mid-term elections, the president's party always loses seats — that would explain 1986. But in the mid-term election of 1998, Clinton's party picked up five seats — and this was after an impeachment inquiry had begun against him.

Go back to 1992 when Clinton's team famously insisted it was all about the economy.

2 comments on this story

Growth was hardly robust, but it was real. The economy had added 766,000 jobs in the year before the election -- with job growth in 11 of those previous 12 months. The unemployment rate had started declining. If the cliche held true, President Bush should have been reelected.

But Clinton had some advantages. For one, there was a third-party candidacy — H. Ross Perot — siphoning votes from his opponent.

Which perhaps means that the economy is always a big issue, but it sure isn't the only one.