Inside the numbers: Outsourcing

Posted: Apr 13, 2004 12:00 AM

The continuing media symposium on the exportation of American jobs overseas may actually have intensified in recent days. While there are intriguing arguments both pro and con for so-called "outsourcing," the real issue in this election season is whether the American people personally know anyone who has lost his or her job to a worker in a foreign land.
A recent national InsiderAdvantage survey shows that about three out of 10 American voters know of someone made jobless by outsourcing. That can be viewed as a significant number, but it probably has not (yet) reached critical mass for wholesale political change in the United States.

 The poll asked, "Do you personally know anyone who has lost his or her job because the job was moved to another country?"

 The results:
 Yes   29 percent
 No   70 percent
 Don't know    1 percent

 The poll was conducted March 18-19 among 500 registered voters. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.

 Again, these numbers suggest the issue has yet to become so widespread as to dominate the election landscape. Health care services, education and the IRS are examples of issues that polls show are more likely to affect how people vote this year.

 That's the good news for President George W. Bush and the Republicans, who seem locked in a public relations death grip with Democrats over the job drain. Much media coverage paints a picture of outsourcing as being easily the No. 1 economic issue as Election Day grows near.

 Many Democrats point out that the high number of layoffs from domestic manufacturing and other jobs makes the current U.S. economy a classic case of a "jobless recovery," and that outsourcing is to blame for the continuing bad news. Republicans counter that the United States imports more jobs and money from other nations than they take from us, and that unemployment is not significantly higher today than it was during the Clinton boom years.

 Each side has a legitimate case, but remember that this is about perception as much as it is about facts, whatever they may be. A look inside the numbers doesn't clear the decks of the issue for Bush and his party. Because the pundit class has established a sort of baseline of outsourcing numbers, the ultimate political impact of the issue may lie in whether the numbers improve or worsen by November. Even if they stay where they are, unsightly job loss statistics could pose eleventh-hour political problems for the GOP.

 Significantly, the age group most painfully and personally aware of specific instances of job exportation is the 55-64 demographic. Forty-two percent said they know of someone who has lost his or her job to a foreigner. Remember, this age group is an avid watcher of news and political commentary. (That may be the reason they are disproportionately aware of the situation.) 

 We can't know whether these older workers have themselves become unemployed from outsourcing, or if it's their family members, friends, co-workers or acquaintances who have lost out. Regardless, the 55-64 group usually turns out to vote in large numbers. If in November they are convinced that outsourcing is the bane of our economy, their discontent could pose a legitimate threat to Bush's re-election.

 Another group to watch is Independents. In a very real sense, their votes will count more than those of staunch Republicans and Democrats, who will roughly cancel each other out at the ballot box with their respective support for Bush and Kerry. One out of three Independents in the poll said they know of someone who has lost his or her job to a foreign country. That's news, given that Independents may choose our next president.

 But strong views or bad experiences in any one segment of the U.S. population do not by themselves make a national issue of lasting significance. The numbers and the intensity of feeling of those disaffected by outsourcing don't now appear strong enough to constitute a prime reason for "outsourcing Bush," or forcing him to change his economic policies.

 But then again, they could. And that provides yet one more reason to believe this election season will be a fascinating one.