Voters aren’t giving Trump much credit for the growing economy, making his path to reelection less smooth than it otherwise should be, given the impressive statistics.
In the past two weeks, good economic news has buoyed the Trump administration, providing a welcome distraction from his impeachment. Job growth in November exceeded expectations — 266,000 new jobs, unemployment down to 3.5 percent — prompting immediate speculation by commentators about the implications for President Donald Trump’s reelection. Although not every indicator suggests that the economy is strong, most commentators thought that these job numbers helped Trump. CNN’s Chris Cillizza argued, for instance, that the numbers “make one thing very clear: President Donald Trump has a path to win a second term next year.”
There’s just one problem with such arguments: Voters aren’t giving Trump much credit for the growing economy, making his path to reelection less smooth than it otherwise should be, given the impressive statistics.
Since the administration of President John F. Kennedy, thanks to the University of Michigan’s Index of Consumer Sentiment, we’ve had a good reading of how people feel about the general economic climate. This index is based on a monthly survey that asks a random sample of Americans five questions about their personal finances as well as overall business conditions. (Higher values on this index mean more favorable views. Over the past 60 or so years, the highest value reached was 112 and the lowest was 52.)
From the beginning of the survey through the administration of President George W. Bush, there was a fairly straightforward relationship: Higher scores on this index equal better approval ratings. But Trump’s approval rating hasn’t budged, even though people’s views of the economy have grown more positive since he took office in 2017.
In fact, Trump’s approval rating is about 15 points lower than we’d predict from the historical relationship between economic evaluations and presidential approval. Right now, about 43 percent of Americans approve of the job Trump’s doing, even though unemployment is lower than economists once thought possible (without causing inflation).
By comparison, in November 1983, as President Ronald Reagan began his reelection campaign, 60 percent approved of him even though consumer sentiment was less positive than it was last month — 91.1 on the University of Michigan scale vs. 96.8. Reagan reaped the benefits of positive economic feelings. Trump hasn’t.
Trump is much more similar to President Barack Obama in this respect than to Reagan. Obama’s approval ratings also remained stubbornly low even as consumer sentiment increased during his two terms in office.
Perhaps some of Trump’s relatively low popularity is because he inspires such strong feelings in his detractors. Some of that can’t be ruled out. But much of this disjuncture between views of the economy and presidential approval isn’t about Trump as a person so much as the growing polarization of our politics.
Republicans and Democrats today, for instance, evaluate the economy more favorably when their party controls the White House. This fact was clearly on display after Trump’s election, when — though the facts remained the same — Republicans immediately began to view the economy more positively, while Democrats suddenly found fault with it. In Gallup polling, the percentage of Republicans who said the economy was getting better increased from 15 percent in October 2016 to 80 percent in February 2017, while the percentage of Democrats saying this fell from 62 percent to 27 percent.
In short, it’s hard for presidents today to get credit from the other party when they preside over a strong economy.
If Trump is less popular than the economic numbers would predict, that means there’s a substantial number of voters who think the economy is doing well but don’t approve of him. Who are they? And next Election Day, which will win out — their economic feelings or their disapproval of the president? New survey data from Nationscape, a project of UCLA and the Democracy Fund, can shed some light on these questions.
In surveys conducted from Nov. 21 to Dec. 4 among 12,800 respondents, 36 percent said that the economy was doing better than a year ago, 41 percent said it was about the same, and 23 percent said it was worse.
Among those who said it was worse, almost everyone, 89 percent, disapproved of Trump and they were also overwhelmingly Democratic. Trump can probably write these people off.
Potentially more interesting subsets of voters are the 6 percent who said that the economy was doing better but disapproved of Trump, and the 28 percent who said the economy was about the same and disapproved of him.
Could many of these people end up voting for him next year? Probably not. Of the first group — the 6 percent – two-thirds are Democrats and 75 percent would vote for former vice president Joe Biden if he ends up running against Trump, vs. 13 percent who would vote for Trump, with the rest unsure. (In a matchup between Elizabeth Warren and Trump, 62 percent would vote for Warren, 17 percent for Trump, and the balance uncertain.)
Of the 28 percent who disapprove of Trump but think the economy has remained stable, an even larger fraction identify as Democrats (74 percent) and say they would vote for Democratic candidates.
In other words, when people think the economy is doing the same or better than a year ago but disapprove of Trump, it’s their feelings about Trump that win out. To get his approval ratings up, Trump needs to convince at least some of these people to give him a little credit for the economy.
Incumbent presidents running in growing economies often pursue such a strategy, as the UCLA political scientist Lynn Vavreck has shown. They focus their reelection campaign on reminding voters about the economic tail winds — as Reagan did in 1984 when he talked about “Morning in America.” When incumbents running in good economies do this, they’re more likely to win. (Not all candidates follow this seemingly intuitive strategy: Vavreck shows that in the 2000 election, former vice president Al Gore did not focus on the strong economic growth during the Clinton years — and, of course, ended up losing.)
To date, Trump has struggled to stick with that message. He will occasionally boast about the economy, but then get sidetracked by other issues. During the 2018 campaign, Republican politicians desperately wanted Trump to talk up the economy, only to see him focus on immigration and especially the migrant caravan traveling north toward the U.S.-Mexico border. Republican fears were then confirmed when Democrats took the House.
It is possible, of course, that Trump could win without emphasizing the economy and, indeed, without changing many voters’ minds — for example, by crafting a narrow path in the electoral college, as he did in 2016. But that would be a remarkably slim victory for a president who’s presiding over what he’s called “the Greatest Economy in American History.” That phrase may be classic Trumpian hyperbole, but there’s no doubt the economy is strong. The question is whether Trump can capitalize on it.
John Sides is a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. He is co-author, with Lynn Vavreck and Michael Tesler, of “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America.” He wrote this for The Washington Post.