One of the hottest political topics this week is what effect Wednesday’s stock-market plunge and the possibility of a significant economic downturn will have on the upcoming presidential election.
Keep in mind that the stock market historically has had a poor record in predicting election outcomes, while economic growth and the public perception of the economy has had a great effect. Although many economists believe the chances of a recession in the next year have grown, most currently think the economy will merely grow at a slower rate between now and the 2020 election than it has since President Trump took office.
The old adage that Americans vote their pocketbooks used to be a safe assumption. But things are more complicated now, and the economy is not quite as major a driver in presidential popularity as it once was.
As this column mentioned last month, noted political scientists John Sides, Lynn Vavreck, and Michael Tesler point out in Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America that while there had been a strong relationship between consumer confidence and presidential job-approval rating from Presidents John F. Kennedy through George W. Bush, that relationship disappeared under Barack Obama and has not resurfaced under Trump. It seems that hyper-partisanship and the increasingly tribal nature of American politics has diminished, if not severed, that relationship in at least two ways.
The first is how people, specifically partisans, see the state and direction of the economy. During Obama’s tenure, Democratic voters tended to see the economy as wobbly but at least improving relative to where it was during the financial crisis and the recession. Thus, they gave him every benefit of the doubt. At the same time, Republicans saw the economy as lousy and not getting much better, if at all.
Once Trump took office, Republicans immediately began seeing economic improvement, long before the tax cuts passed or, for that matter, the new president had a chance to do anything. Meanwhile, previously optimistic Democrats suddenly began souring on the economy. Credit or blame became more partisan than anything else.
Secondly, how someone viewed Obama or Trump—whether they personally liked or disliked each president, and whether they tended to agree or disagree with his policies—made more difference in how they viewed the economy than how the economy was actually performing. When the U.S. economy was going gangbusters last year, with 4.2 percent real-GDP growth in the second quarter, it didn’t move Trump’s numbers a bit. Now that we’ve had the lowest unemployment rate in 49 years for four consecutive months, Trump’s approval ratings in some polls have increased by a point or two, three at most—far less than one might think.
In the Fox News poll conducted Aug. 11-13 and released Wednesday evening, Trump’s approval rating was 43 percent, down 3 points since July and 1 point above his average approval since taking office. In the eight Fox polls taken since the beginning of this year, Trump’s approval has ranged from as low as 43 percent to as high as 46 percent. Since taking office, his range has been from a low of 38 percent to a high of 48 percent.
Simply put, if Trump were a stock, he would have a narrow, 10-point trading range so far. Shifting to the Gallup poll as our measure, his approval range since taking office has been 11 points, a low of 35 percent to a high of 46 percent, and his average is 40 percent. He polled at 42 percent in the most recent survey, covering the second half of July.
Very simply, these are not the numbers one might expect in an economy as strong as it has been, putting aside the question of whether it has benefited everyone equally.
What happens now? A traditionalist would insist that nothing has changed—that the growing economy has helped Trump so far but that if it slumps, it will hurt him.
The second way to look at it is that the economy still matters, just less than it used to. The growing economy has helped Trump, just not to the degree it would have in a less polarized time. It would follow, according to this school of thought, that if things slow down, it will hurt him, but also not as much as it would have in a different era or with a less polarizing president.
The third school of thought, held primarily by Democrats and those on the Left, is that the growing economy is the only thing that has kept the mercurial and polarizing Trump from having even worse numbers than he has. They argue that the economy has propped him up and that if it slows down, his popularity will plummet as well.
My view is that the first view is wrong—things have changed—but that the third argument ignores how views toward Trump, and before him, Obama, limit how much a good economy can help or a bad economy can hurt a president. His passionate supporters are going to stay with him no matter what. His strongest detractors will oppose him no matter what.
Voter turnout among partisans may be affected, but the level of support or opposition among each camp will fluctuate less than in the past.