A growing number of Republicans, including President Trump, argue that Democratic governors are keeping their states closed to intentionally slow the economy and hurt Trump's chances at reelection. Some Democrats, including many who worked with President Obama during the last fiscal crisis, worry that a partial rebound of the economy by early fall will give Trump a comeback narrative just in time for Election Day.
What both of these theories are missing, however, is the reality that the economic data has not been and likely will not be the issue driving opinions of whether Trump deserves a second term.
As I've written previously, a good economy has not been the boon to Trump that it was to previous presidents. Back in January, when the president was enjoying some of his highest ratings on the economy, his overall job approval was still mired in the mid to low 40's. As Ron Brownstein astutely observed in a CNN piece from that month, Trump was failing to convert those strong approval ratings to votes. "Exit polls found in 2004 and 2012 that Bush and Obama, as the incumbents, each won about 90% of voters who described the economy as excellent or good," Brownstein writes. "But Trump drew just 55% of voters who expressed such economic satisfaction when matched against former Vice President Joe Biden in the December national CNN poll; Biden held an 80-point lead among the minority of voters who called the economy only fair or poor, enough to top Trump overall."
The Washington Post's pollster, Scott Clement, found similar results in their January polling. "The Post-ABC poll also finds that 56 percent approve of Trump's handling of the economy, up 10 percentage points from last fall and the highest rating of his presidency on this issue. The difference of 12 points between Trump's economic approval rating and his overall approval is an indication of how public opinions on other aspects of Trump's performance have been a drag on his popularity." More ominously for Trump, wrote Clement, "13 percent of registered voters approve of Trump's handling of the economy but disapprove or have no opinion of his overall job performance. Among that group, 73 percent say they would support Biden while 15 percent would back Trump if the election were today."
Clement was kind enough to combine results of Washington Post surveys for me from January to March. Overall, 10 percent of adults in January/February/March polls both approved of Trump's handling of the economy and did not approve (disapprove or no opinion) of his overall job performance. And when these voters were asked whom they'd support in the fall, the combined cross-survey result was 70 percent Biden to 23 percent Trump.
I also asked Clement if he could drill down and tell me who these voters were who approved of Trump's handling of the economy but disapproved of Trump as president and were overwhelmingly supportive of Biden. These voters were more diverse than the population overall (49 percent white, 21 percent Hispanic and 16 percent black). They were younger (almost half were ages 18-39) and almost evenly divided by gender (53 percent male to 47 percent female). On standard party ID, most (53 percent) identified as political independents. When pushed, these independents leaned more Democratic (56 percent) than Republican (25 percent).
In other words, these voters who liked what Trump was doing on the economy but didn't like the job he was doing as president, look different than the kinds of voters who typically back the president. They are a group that's more diverse, more female and younger than his traditional supporters. This leads to the chicken and egg question: would he be winning over these voters if he changed his style and approach? Or are these voters using Trump's behavior as an excuse to vote the way they were always going to in the first place?
Either way, it's clear that a strong economy alone wasn't enough to turn Trump-skeptics into Trump voters.
So, now that the economy is turning south, can Trump leverage a solid boost in third quarter growth to sell voters on a message of 'economic turnaround'? After all, he is the guy who, despite his shaky business past, was able to convince voters of his economic acumen back in 2016.
Furthermore, as the economic outlook and reality have soured over these past few weeks, opinions of the president haven't deteriorated all that much. For example, on January 31st, the FiveThirtyEight average put Trump's job approval ratings at 43 percent approve to 52 percent disapprove. This week, they are 43 percent approve to 54 percent disapprove.
But a conversation I had with Lynn Vavreck, Professor of American Politics and Public Policy at UCLA and one of the co-authors of "Identity Politics," a seminal study of the 2016 election, reminded me that when it comes to Trump, talk of the economy is never just about the economy.
When I asked her to explain the impact a recessionary economy may have on Trump's reelection chances, she told me, "under normal circumstances, this would be a very bad situation for an incumbent president seeking reelection. By all measures," said Vavreck, "Trump should pay a price."
But she noted that Trump has proven adept at turning economic issues into identity issues. In many ways, Vavreck argues, Hillary Clinton and Democrats had a pretty good story to tell about the economy back in 2016. While it wasn't rocketing to new heights, it was growing and had made big improvements from the time that Obama took over in 2009. But, Vavreck says, "Trump was able to take that slowly growing economy and really change the focus of the election off of that and onto these identity inflected topics and turned the economy into one of those identity inflected topics...[it] wasn't so much are you worried about losing your job, but are you worried about losing your job to people who are coming here illegally and don't deserve your job?"
In 2016, said Vavreck, Trump "racialized the good economy." This year, she said, "I think, could he do the same thing to the bad economy? And, I think he probably can."
This has always been the reality for this president. He is more interested in using his bully pulpit to stoke cultural wars than to promote economic policy. Even as GOP leaders in Congress begged him to talk up the good economy in 2018, Trump was much more interested in stirring fear about an impending "caravan" of migrants headed to the southern border. Today, it's China, mask-wearing and MSNBC's Joe Scarborough who are getting Trump's attention. Another president might try to tout an economic rebound as the rationale for their reelection. For Trump, however, the narrative will always be about grievance and blame. It worked in 2016 when he was a political outsider with no record and no claim of responsibility. This time around, he's the one in the big chair.
Image Credit: AP Photo/Evan Vucci