What changed? Only the result of the presidential race. As you might expect, that result had an inverse effect on Democrats: Suddenly they were more pessimistic than optimistic about how the economy was doing.
Pew asked a range of questions, splitting up the responses by party (including independents who tend to lean toward one party or the other). Before the election, Pew found, more than half of Republicans thought incomes were falling behind relative to the cost of living. After the election, that dropped to a bit over a third — and more than half of Democrats suddenly felt as if their incomes were falling behind. Obviously, there wasn’t a significant change in incomes that affected only one party. Only the perceptions changed.
Partisan perceptions of the economy aren’t new to the Trump era, but they’ve emerged relatively recently in American politics. Pew’s data goes back more than 20 years, allowing us to see how perceptions of the economy fared under past presidents.
Under Bill Clinton, for example, both Republicans and Democrats viewed the economy as good. When George W. Bush was elected, though, Democratic perceptions plunged as Republican perceptions held steady. (There was a recession early in Bush’s first term, which may have influenced the Democrats’ views.) By the end of Bush’s term, with another recession looming, even Republicans felt that things were bad.
Then came Barack Obama, and Democratic confidence in the economy grew much more quickly than did Republican confidence — until Election Day 2016. At that point, a gigantic split in perceptions.
We see a similar effect on a related question: Will the economy be better in a year? Republicans were more confident about it under Bush; Democrats were more confident under Obama — and then Trump broke the scale.
The effect is more pronounced when we consider solely the margin between the two parties. In the middle of Bush’s eight years, Republicans were up to 50 points more likely to view the economy as “excellent” or “good” compared with Democrats.
On perceptions of how the economy will be in 12 months, the effect of the 2016 election is stunning.
That partisan divide trickles down into Pew’s in other ways, too. For example, Pew asked whether plenty of jobs were available in respondents’ communities, and Republicans were 11 points more likely to say that there were. Asked whether good jobs were available, Republicans were 25 points more likely to agree.
The economy is doing well (except, according to the president, in Virginia). But how Americans view it these days is colored heavily by how they view the person in the White House. In light of these long-term trends, what Gallup noted after Election Day last year isn’t a surprise. Nor should it have been, really, in an era in which partisanship colors nearly everything.