Bob Schneider is semiretired in Cincinnati. After years at a government desk job, he now spends his days managing bookings for his daughter and son-in-law, who are musicians. It's a gig that often takes him around the city and its surrounding areas. Schneider, an independent voter, says he can see the economy has improved since Donald Trump was elected.
“I think the economy is more on the right track. It seems better when I drive through parts of Cincinnati that were once really depressed,” Schneider said. “What I'm sensing is a greater sense of people feeling good and believing things will get better.”
Independents are the most optimistic about the economy in years. A weekly Bloomberg News survey of independent voters — the Consumer Comfort Index — recently hit its highest level since 2001. The monthly University of Michigan Survey of Consumers shows independents are as upbeat now about the economy as they were in the 1980s.
“Independents are more likely to have positive feelings about the tax cut,” said Richard Curtin, director of the University of Michigan survey. “We're in the ninth year of this expansion. This is very favorable sentiment at this age of the economic expansion.”
Republicans hope this wave of optimism helps them to victory in the midterm elections.
“When the economy is doing well, people tend to support the incumbent party,” said Samara Klar, a political-science professor at the University of Arizona. She says another factor is “independents today tend to be more conservative leaning.”
But the GOP faces a conundrum: While Americans feel good about the economy, Trump's approval ratings remain at anemic levels. The 2018 election could test the famous American saying that “It's the economy, stupid” that matters most when voters go to the polls.
While the GOP strategy is to make the midterm election about the economy, Democrats want to make it about Trump's controversies that have pushed his approval rating back to all-time lows. Several independent voters told The Washington Post they are struggling to weigh Trump's positives and negatives and figure out how they'll vote in 2018 and 2020.
“Trump is not as tactful as I'd like him to be,” said Schneider, but he likes what the president has done for the economy, including “reducing paperwork.”
James Bowen, a graduate student at the University of Kansas and independent voter, sides with Trump on immigration, defense and trade issues, but he's concerned about how much the president is running up America's debt.
“I don't like the tax bill. If we're going to balance our budget and undertake a lot of work that needs to be done, we have to raise taxes,” Bowen said. He recently calculated his 2017 taxes, but he hasn't figured out his bill yet for 2018, the first year Americans would see any benefit from Trump's tax cuts.
Many of the political indicators point to a Democratic wave in 2018. Democrats are ahead in the polls, and history favors them.
“History is against the party that holds the White House. In 100 years, the party that has held the White House has only kept the majority in the House three times in that first midterm,” Republican National Committee Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel told young conservatives last week at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
She urged them to change history by highlighting the economy, and regardless of whether you credit Trump or former president Barack Obama, there's plenty to highlight.
Unemployment is at the lowest level since December 2000. In December 2017, black unemployment hit the lowest level since the Labor Department began recording the statistic in 1972. The tax savings are starting to show up in people's paychecks, and wages are showing the first signs of rising after years of stagnation. If these trends continue, the economy could be an even stronger talking point in the fall.
After the 2016 election, Democrats' views of the economy tanked, according to the University of Michigan data. Some even pulled their money out of the stock market because they were so fearful of what Trump would do in the Oval Office. Meanwhile, Republicans' views of the economy soared and have stayed high ever since. Independents have had a more interesting path: Their economic views jumped a little after the election then pulled back in the summer and are now going back up again after the tax cut.
“Independents are more open to both positive and negative news,” said Curtin, the director of the University of Michigan survey.
The roaring stock market and rebounding economy have already transformed Wall Street executives' opinions on Trump. Many business leaders who were once critical of the president now say they are net positive on Trump after the tax cuts. Republicans are hoping middle-of-the-road voters come to a similar conclusion.
One of the challenges for Republicans is ensuring that Americans really do see tangible benefits from the tax cuts. While the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center says 80 percent of Americans will see a reduction in their taxes this year, only 44 percent will see a reduction of $500 or more, according to the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) was widely ridiculed for tweeting about a secretary who saved $1.50 a week from the tax bill. A few hours later, he deleted the tweet.
Schneider, the independent voter in Cincinnati, says he looked at his own finances and thinks he'll “come out about even” after the tax changes. He thinks the cuts are aimed more at “helping the fat cats.”
Paul Shank, a real estate broker and independent voter in Albuquerque, is also skeptical he'll benefit from the tax bill.
“My wife pointed out to me that her last check was supposed to include all the changes in the new tax bill. It was within a dollar of what it had always been,” Shank said.
Even among those who do receive a sizable tax cut, Peter Atwater, an expert on U.S. sentiment data and president of Financial Insyghts, thinks enthusiasm about the extra money could fade by Election Day. For some, the amount might be less than expected, and for others, it might feel normal by November to have that additional money.
“Consumer confidence is an inherently forward-looking sensation,” Atwater said. “Whether it is sentiment data or stock prices, it looks like people already factored the tax cut and any-related wage gains into their expectations of the economy.”