Campaigning in a 'Half-Speed Economy'

In this period of disorientation, few things are almost universally accepted. One of them is that the U.S. is headed into a recession. The latest edition of the University of Michigan’s highly regarded Index of Consumer Sentiment, released Thursday, was an eye-opener. The monthly national poll showed its greatest decline in its 54-year history.

Beyond the typical questions of how deep and how long the recession will be, there are questions of how lives will be changed by this extraordinary and tragic chain of events. Democratic strategist Doug Sosnik, the political director in the Clinton White House, suggests that we will see two phases—“a health crisis with unimaginable economic consequences” followed by “a devastating economic crisis with continued health consequences.” Health experts fear a second or third wave of COVID-19 infection if it isn’t effectively dealt with now.

No matter how you look at it, this is unlike anything we have seen. Nobel Prize–winning economist Paul Krugman nailed it in his New York Times column last week when he said the U.S. has entered the economic version of a “medically induced coma” in order to stop the spread of the disease and flatten the curve. Polling shows that while the public anticipates a horror show of an economy in the immediate future, they expect things will be much better a year from now than today.

A blizzard of polls was released this week, so many that the first half-dozen drafts of this column were awash in numbers. Rather than turning the column into a spreadsheet, take a look for yourself at the polls from CNBCCNNFox NewsMonmouth, and Quinnipiac.

The bottom line is that President Trump’s approval ratings ticked up somewhere between 2 and 5 points, depending on the poll. This is key because approval ratings are very good indicators of how an incumbent will fare on Election Day.

The general-election trial-heat figures generally showed presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden leading Trump by anywhere from 4 to 11 points. The polls showing the closest race were Monmouth University, showing a 4-point Biden lead, and All America Economic Survey by CNBC, which showed a 5-point Biden advantage. On the other end of the spectrum, Quinnipiac University’s survey put Biden up by 8 points, and CNN had him up by 11. Just before I hit the "send" key for this column, the Fox poll came out, which showed the race tied at 42 percent. The pattern in Fox polling had been very steady, with Biden ahead by 9 points in January (50 to 41 percent), 8 points in February (49-41), and 9 points last month (49-40) so this is a head-scratcher for now.

The closer polls support one narrative about the role of the economy in this election, while the bigger margins support another. Many people tend to believe that if there is a recession in an election year, the incumbent simply loses; game, set, and match. The headwind is simply too strong for any incumbent to withstand. A competing narrative is that Trump has merely lost the economic tailwind that he had been enjoying, a disadvantage to be sure but not necessarily a determinative one, particularly when you keep in mind that the outcome is determined by the Electoral College, not the national popular vote.

What about downballot races? Actual campaigning is out of the question for now. Besides being in bad form, it seems pretty unlikely there will be much hand-shaking and backslapping anytime soon. Veteran Republican pollster Jan van Lohuizen has an interesting take on this, arguing that “this crisis gives incumbent members of the Senate and the House the opportunity for a reset of their relationship with the voters, an opportunity to redefine who they are.”

A Washingtonian-turned-Houstonian, van Lohuizen was the lead pollster for George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign, his reelection campaign in 2004, and his eight years in the White House as well. Acknowledging that in a general election, a voter’s party identification usually supersedes everything else, he continued: “Like it or not, every member is evaluated on just two criteria, their partisanship and to what extent they support or oppose Trump. This gives them the opportunity to add something else: effective, caring leadership in time of crisis.”

Take a hypothetical freshman Democrat who flipped a long-held GOP district in 2018. That member is likely worried about the impact of a vote supporting impeachment or attachment to the national Democratic Party. They could likely benefit from being seen in a different and far more positive light.

Pointing to Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, van Lohuizen argues that “her current predicament is that she lost the aura of independence and bipartisanship.” This moment, however, “gives her an opportunity to rewrite the script from ‘voted for Kavanaugh’ to ‘got us masks and ventilators’ or ‘bailed out Maine’s small-business community.’“

At the same time, van Lohuizen added, “I don’t think this will be easy or that many members will take the opportunity. Living in Houston, I have not seen members really stand out. Most of the news goes to executive offices like our governor, our mayor, and our county judge.” One exception, he noted, is Democratic Rep. Al Green, who had been “defined by his efforts to impeach Trump,” but now “has found his way into the news several times hand-loading boxes of masks to be delivered to local hospitals.”

What will the new normal look like? The most insightful analysis I have seen yet is from a presentation deck by Washington strategist Bruce Mehlman to be officially released Friday, one that I spent an hour going through and plan to spend many more. He says to expect a “half-speed economy,” as temperature checks are required to travel, dine, go to work, or attend class, and “rolling regional flare-ups” of the virus continue to be a fact of life.

As for politics, the 2020 election will become little more than a “referendum on Trump’s COVID leadership.”

This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on April 10, 2020