President Trump at the Capitol on May 15. (Kevin Dietsch/Bloomberg)
Opinion writer

At a rally in Pennsylvania on Monday, President Trump took special care to talk up his trade agenda, claiming that it has boosted jobs in the state and strengthened its steel industry. Trump’s trade policies will, of course, be central to his reelection bid, which centers on holding the “blue wall” states he cracked in 2016 — Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

In Trump’s mind, his trade agenda cannot be unpopular, because the economy is doing so well, and surely his policies are the sole reason for that. Which means he’ll get reelected.

“When you have the best economy probably that we’ve ever had,” Trump said, “how the hell do you lose this election, right?”

It’s a good question. And a new Quinnipiac University poll suggests one way it might happen.

The poll finds shockingly good numbers on the economy. A total of 71 percent of voters said the economy is either “excellent” (22 percent), or “good” (49 percent). A majority of respondents — 52 percent — said they are better off financially today than they were in 2016.

But Trump’s approval rating is only 38 percent, while 57 percent disapprove.

A chorus of pundits will point out that this reflects disapproval of Trump on things that are unrelated to the economy, such as his racism, authoritarianism, and temperamental unfitness for the presidency, and surely there’s a lot to that.

But the poll also raises the possibility that Trump’s economic record may also be part of the problem. It finds that on his signature issues of trade and China, he’s also underwater:

  • Only 39 percent of voters approve of Trump’s handling of trade, versus 53 percent who disapprove.
  • Only 40 percent approve of the way Trump is handling the nation’s policy towards China, versus 50 percent who disapprove.
  • Only 40 percent say Trump’s trade policies are good for the U.S. economy, versus 48 percent who say they’re bad.

This might help explain why voters are so closely divided on whether they approve of Trump’s overall handling of the economy (48 percent approve, 45 percent disapprove), even as they like the economy itself so much.

As it is, Trump might end up benefiting from the good economy to a lesser degree than he expects, even though the rule is supposed to be that good economies help incumbents. As CNN’s Harry Enten recently explained, at no point during his presidency has Trump clearly benefited from the economy: Though we’ve had low unemployment and solid economic growth throughout, his approval rating has generally hovered around 42 percent.

But in addition to this, it’s also worth asking whether public assessments of Trump’s economic policies may have come decoupled from public assessments of the economy’s overall health and voters’ sense of their own economic prospects.

After all, Trump’s economic agenda involves a fusion of conventional Republican policies with his “America First” trade agenda, which is supposed to represent a species of economic populism that broke with GOP orthodoxy. Under Trump, neither of these has been popular. Many recent polls have found that Trump’s tax cut, which overwhelmingly benefited corporations and the wealthy, is underwater.

But, in a bit of a surprise, the Trump economic policies that most prominently broke with GOP orthodoxy — that is, on trade — have also proven unpopular, as the new Quinnipiac poll demonstrates. We’ve seen Trump’s trade wars have all kinds of negative effects, hitting parts of his own base particularly hard, even as a deal with China has proven more elusive than he expected.

It also seems plausible that public impressions of Trump’s trade and China policies have become entangled with impressions of his “America First” nationalism. Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate agreement and his disastrous immigration policies have also proved deeply unpopular.

Now, it is true that Trump mainly needs these policies to deliver him back the non-college-educated whites that powered his victory in 2016. The Quinnipiac poll does find that majorities of those voters do approve of Trump on trade and China, though they are surprisingly bare majorities, of 54 percent and 55 percent, respectively.

But it turns out these policies are unpopular among the broader electorates in the industrial Midwest. Quinnipiac sent me the numbers on these policies in just that region — Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Iowa — and the results are:

  • In these five states, only 41 percent of voters approve of Trump’s handling of trade, versus 56 percent who disapprove.
  • In these five states, only 39 percent approve of the way Trump is handling the nation’s policies towards China, versus 53 percent who disapprove.
  • In these five states, only 39 percent say Trump’s trade policies are good for the U.S. economy, versus 47 percent who say they’re bad.

This mirrors a Post poll from July 2018, which found that only 39 percent of voters in that same region thought the tariff wars with China would be good for U.S. jobs, versus 59 percent who did not.

Oddly, despite all this, Democrats have if anything been surprisingly reluctant to take on Trump on trade and China. But that should change. Trump does not have magical political powers on these issues, even if the good economy seems to persuade him otherwise.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: How much pain is Trump going to inflict on those who elected him?

Catherine Rampell: Democrats should be shouting Trump’s trade failures from the rooftops

Eugene Robinson: Trump has no idea what he’s doing

Jared Bernstein: The problem — and consequence — of Trump’s trade war with China