Despite all the challenges facing Republicans in the upcoming midterm election, the one thing that gives them hope for retaining their majorities in Congress is the economy. And, with good reason. We’ve got low unemployment, signs of real wage growth, improving perceptions of the tax law, and surging consumer confidence. However, we've yet to see that translate into support for President Trump— or for his party.
Moreover, there’s also evidence to suggest that while voters may be feeling better about the economy writ large, they aren’t necessarily feeling as positive about their own financial situation.
Americans are feeling better about the economy than they have in a long time. The January NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found 69 percent were satisfied with the economy, the highest level of satisfaction since 2000. And, it’s not just Republicans who feel this way, 65 percent of Independent voters and 57 percent of Democrats were feeling good about the state of the economy. Back in September of 2006, when 43 percent of all voters said they were “satisfied” with the economy, only Republicans were feeling optimistic. Back then, 72 percent of Republicans felt positive about the economy, compared to just 34 percent of independents and 21 percent of Democrats.
Even so, when asked whether they thought 2018 would be a “time of economic expansion for you and your family” or a time to “hold back and save because harder times are ahead,” just 39 percent of Americans picked “expansion,” while 53 percent said “harder times.” And here, the partisan gaps are huge. While 69 percent of Republicans think 2018 will be “an opportunity to move ahead,” just 39 percent of independents and 16 percent of Democrats feel similarly.
The February FOX News poll showed a similar pattern. While 63 percent of Americans said they were "optimistic" about the economy, just 38 percent said they thought the job situation was getting better, only 29 percent said they had more money in their pocket, and just 23 percent said they felt they were "getting ahead" in their own personal financial situation. And, once again, Republicans were much more bullish on their personal financial situation than independents or Democrats. Moreover, support for the tax bill barely budged from where it was in January. In January, 38 percent supported, and 37 percent opposed the new law. In February, support went up one point to 39 percent, and opposition also inched up to 39 percent.
In other words, overall optimism or satisfaction with the current state of the economy isn’t translating to personal economic satisfaction.
We’ve been asking for a while why improving economic conditions haven’t translated into higher approval ratings for the president. The short answer: the president himself. Everything he does — from the way he acts and tweets to the policies he promotes — is squarely aimed at the 40 percent who already like him. He is more interested in pleasing and placating his base than broadening it.
But, GOPers in Congress are hoping that they can get credit for an improving economy because they aren’t Trump. He has his brand and style. They have their own. However, polling we’ve seen thus far in 2018 shows the fate of GOP members continues to be tied more closely to Trump than anything else. For example, in that same NBC/Wall Street Journal poll that showed 69 percent of Americans satisfied with the economy, Trump was still deeply underwater in his approval rating (39 percent approve to 57 percent disapprove). Moreover, Democrats were ahead of Republicans on the generic ballot by 6 points – 49 percent to 43 percent. A January ABC/Washington Post poll found a similar dynamic at work. While 58 percent said they thought the economy was getting better, only 38 percent approved of the job Trump was doing as president. And, just 39 percent of voters said they’d support a Republican for Congress to 51 percent who’d pick a Democrat.
Since May, Quinnipiac has been asking respondents to rate the economy and Trump’s handling of it, as well as Trump’s overall approval rating, and which party they support in Congress for the 2018 election (the congressional ballot). Over the last eight months, the percentage of those who say the economy is good has been steadily climbing. Back in May, 56 percent thought the economy was good to 43 percent who said it wasn’t good (+13). By November, 62 percent picked good to 37 percent who picked not good (+25). And, as of February, a whopping 70 percent said the economy was good to just 28 percent who said the economy was not good (+42). Meanwhile, perceptions of the president’s handling of the economy have also improved. In May, just 40 percent approved of the job Trump was doing on the economy, while 52 percent disapproved (-8). In October it was 48 percent approve, 46 percent disapprove (+2). And, in February, it was +8 (50 percent approve to 42 percent disapprove).
Yet, there’s not been a corresponding improvement in the president’s approval ratings or for the Republicans on the congressional ballot test.
For example, in August of last year, Trump’s job approval was 39 percent approve and 57 percent disapprove (-18) and Democrats were up 10 points on the congressional ballot test. On issues of the economy, 54 percent thought it was good to 45 percent who thought it wasn’t good (+9), while 45 percent of voters said they approved of the job Trump was doing on the economy to 49 percent who said they disapproved (-4). Fast forward to February, 70 percent think the economy is good to just 28 percent who think the economy is not in good shape (+42), and 50 percent of Americans approve of the job the president is doing on the economy to 42 percent who disapprove (+8). Yet, the president’s job approval rating and Republicans position on the congressional ballot don’t look any better in February of 2018 than they did in August of 2017. Trump’s job approval is still underwater by 15 points and Democrats are still ahead on the congressional ballot by 9 points.
To be sure, we are only two months into 2018. There’s plenty of time for the strong economic news to start to result in more positive ratings for the president and his party. Plus, Republicans get the opportunity to make their case in their campaigns this fall. At this point, however, Republicans 2018 prospects are tracking more closely with the president’s approval rating than with Americans (more positive) perceptions of the economy.