President Donald Trump is betting that focusing on the strong economy — and his administration’s efforts to boost economic growth — will propel him to a reelection victory in November. Political scientists and pollsters say it’s likely a good wager.
Trump spent a large portion of his State of the Union address Tuesday touting his economic accomplishments, including cutting taxes and “job killing-regulations.”
“From the instant I took office, I moved rapidly to revive the U.S. economy,” Trump said. “In just three short years, we have shattered the mentality of American decline and we have rejected the downsizing of America’s destiny. We are moving forward at a pace that was unimaginable just a short time ago, and we are never going back,” he added.
Economy is top of mind for many voters. In a PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll from December, independent voters ranked the economy as their number one issue.
Trump’s overall approval rating has never risen above 50 percent, according to Gallup, but voters tend to give him higher marks for the economy than they do other areas, such as foreign policy.
Voters appear to be making a distinction, even though Trump’s foreign policy, including his trade war with China and his effort to push through a replacement to the North American Free Trade Agreement, has had a significant effect on the domestic and global economy, injecting short-term uncertainty into the markets in hopes of a longer-term gain.
Like most issues, the numbers tend to break along party lines. Real Clear Politics’ average of various polls show about 55 percent of voters approve of Trump’s handling of the economy.
Denver-based pollster Floyd Ciruli said the fact that a majority of voters favor Trump on the economy shows independents and even some Democratic-leaning voters are giving the president credit for the economic expansion that began during former President Barack Obama’s tenure.
Analyses of past elections show that an improving economy — specifically a rise in gross domestic product — gives incumbent presidents like Trump a distinct advantage.
“If GDP growth is positive above about a percentage point, the incumbent party is more likely than not going to win the election,” said Lynn Vavreck, a UCLA political science professor.
In each of the last two quarters, GDP growth has been 2.1 percent. That is far from the 6 percent growth Trump predicted in 2017, and there will be another three fiscal quarters to watch before the November elections. But if the economy continues to hum along as it has for the past few years, it will likely bode well for Trump’s reelection prospects.
In a trend that started under Obama, the unemployment rate has dropped to historic lows during Trump’s three years in office. Plus, wages have started to tick up, albeit not as quickly as some economists have hoped.
There are still some weak points to the current economy. Trump’s trade wars are dragging on the American and global economies. Some economists have warned that the Republican 2017 tax cuts, the Federal Reserve’s decision to cut key interest rates and a boost in government spending that has increased the national deficit have all artificially inflated the nation’s economy.
As the effects of those measures wear off, the economic expansion could slow or even come to an end. Those concerns raised fears of a recession last year, but investors shrugged off most of those concerns as they headed into 2020.
It’s unclear exactly why voters tend to vote for an incumbent president when the economy is growing. One theory is that voters are “rewarding” a president for his economic policies, even though research shows presidents typically have less influence over an economy than they take credit–or get blamed–for.
Another theory: People naturally gravitate toward the status quo because they are afraid that a new president could derail the economy.
Alberto Alesina, a professor of political economy at Harvard University, explains a typical voter mindset this way: “Things aren’t perfect, my wage hasn’t gone up much, but I’m employed and things could go worse, so let’s stick with things as they are.”
That thinking is known in the field of behavioral economics as loss aversion. In essence, people feel losses more strongly than they do gains, which makes them averse to change. Cutting your salary in half, for example, tends to make you more unhappy than doubling your salary makes you happy.
“The fact that there is loss aversion doesn’t mean that things should never change. When people are sufficiently upset about the status quo, they are willing to change it,” Alesina said. But it is a difficult argument to make in a good economy, she added.
Still, political inertia does not mean that a president’s messaging on economics doesn’t matter.
In 1976, the U.S. economy turned around from a recession and saw GDP growth of 5.6 percent under President Gerald Ford. But, Vavreck said, Ford’s campaign did not capitalize on the growing economy as much as he could have — a move that likely contributed to his failure to win reelection.
It’s a mistake Trump is unlikely to repeat. In addition to the State of the Union, Trump regularly touts his economic accomplishments at his campaign rallies. His lawyers even cited his record during the Senate impeachment trial.
So where does that leave the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, who have been campaigning on the message that the current economy is only benefiting the wealthy?
In the Democratic response to the State of the Union, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic governor of Michigan, told viewers “The American economy needs to be a different kind of strong.”
Any focus on the economy requires people to imagine a scenario in which they are doing better than they are today — and take a risk to try to get there. That can be a tall order for voters who might generally think they are doing O.K. financially — or at least slightly better off than they were four years ago.
“If you want to talk about inequality as an economic issue that is plaguing the country, that is a much harder sell in an economy that is objectively growing,” Vavreck said.
Still, Democratic presidential candidates could take a lesson from Whitmer in other ways.
Whitmer was elected governor of the battleground state in 2018, in a wave of Democratic wins across the nation that was viewed by some analysts as a rebuke to Trump.
Michigan-based pollster Richard Czuba, founder of the political research firm Glengariff Group, said voters in that swing state have a mixed view of the economy.
Trump promised on the 2016 campaign trail to create 25 million jobs and bring back manufacturing jobs from overseas. So far, a little more than 6 million jobs have been created while he has been in office, including 443,000 manufacturing jobs. But few jobs have been brought back from foreign countries and manufacturing is starting to experience a slowdown in some states. Michigan lost 5,300 factory jobs in 2019 while being hit by the trade war with China. However, the USMCA trade deal — which replaced NAFTA — and a Phase 1 trade deal with China could indicate better prospects in the coming months.
But even more than the economy, Czuba said Michigan voters seem to be interested in improving infrastructure, reducing prescription drug prices and having good health insurance — all issues Whitmer focused on in her 2018 campaign and highlighted in her response to the State of the Union.
“It’s these bread-and-butter issues that are really motivating voters right now,” Czuba said.
Political analysts note that the 2020 Democratic candidates for president are targeting their current messages at the Democratic base, but there is still plenty of time to pivot to a broader message intended for independent and moderate voters.
And Vavreck adds that if Democrats are addressing economic inequality couched in a large “umbrella” message about societal values, for example, it could begin to resonate without drawing attention to what could be perceived as Trump’s economic accomplishments.
Czuba said that despite the diverse range of views he hears from voters every day, there is one thing he hears over and over: “They are fatigued” by the partisan rancor in Washington, which has only seemed to worsen with Trump’s impeachment that has gone on for months.
If Democrats are hoping to win over those frustrated voters despite an economy that is likely to be a boon to Trump’s campaign, 1976 can be a guide. It was that year that Jimmy Carter tapped into the country’s weariness from the the political turmoil that spawned from the Watergate scandal and campaigned on a positive message of love and restoring trust in the federal government.
Political analysts say for Trump, the task is more simple. While he’s not expected to shy away from other divisive issues like immigration, his main message should be consistent. The economy is doing well. Why risk a change?