One weird part of the Trump era (and there are many weird parts) is the rise of Donald Trump the Self-Appointed Elections Expert. In between tweets about the wall, the Mueller Witch Hunt and trade, the president regularly takes to Twitter and talks about why he won in 2016, why the polls are where they are and other topics that the wonks typically obsess over. Here’s his latest:
I’m a big believer in leading with the positive and trying to find something good in everything — even this — so let’s start with what the president gets right here. Americans are genuinely happy with the state of the economy and Trump’s performance in that area. According to the latest Economist/YouGov poll, 53 percent of registered voters approve of how the president has been handling the economy, and CBS found that 70 percent of Americans believe the economy is good. Trump’s overall approval rating is in the low-to-mid 40s range, so he’s right to identify the economy as one of his biggest strengths.
But things get a bit thornier for the president’s theory after that.
Trump is right that media coverage of him has been negative. A study by Pew Research Center showed that early coverage of his presidency was more negative than coverage of Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush or Bill Clinton.
But he implies that negative coverage is mostly a product of unfairness or “corruption.” That, to me, seems wrong. If the president wanted the media to cover the economy more often, he could have focused on it more. Instead, he tried to pass a series of unpopular Obamacare repeal-and-replace bills; nominated two Supreme Court justices, one of whom was extremely controversial and had an extended, contentious confirmation fight; passed a traditional Republican tax reform bill; lost the House in the midterm elections; shut the government down over border wall funding; picked fights with protesting NFL players; went through a special investigation; got into trade fights with Canada and Mexico; and characterized white supremacists as “very fine people.”
Reasonable people can make (and have made) the case that the media has a liberal bias. But it’s impossible to look at the events of the last two-plus years and think that the media just decided not to focus on the economy or invent stories that made Trump seem ineffective. If Trump wanted to get more positive coverage for his economic policies, he could probably do so by actually getting started on “Infrastructure Week,” and staying on message about the state of the economy and what he believes to be the impact of his tax cuts.
The specific numbers Trump cite have an odd ring to them, as well. If Trump’s overall approval exactly mirrored his approval rating on the economy, he’d be at +10: Fifty-three percent of registered voters approve of his handling of the economy per YouGov, while 43 percent disapprove, and 53 minus 43 equals 10. But even even if the media only covered the economy, it’s not clear Trump would get to a +10 margin. Only 11 percent of Americans said the economy was the most important issue to them in that same YouGov poll, while most Americans listed primarily non-economic issues as the most important: 50 percent listed abortion, gun control, foreign policy, education, gay rights, terrorism, the environment or immigration as their top issue. If someone disapproved of Trump for cultural reasons, then changing the tone of coverage or shifting to the economy may not be enough to get them aboard the Trump train.
Most significantly, it would be tough for any president to get to a +15 or +25 net-approval rating based on the economy alone. For much of the 20th century, the economy had a strong pull on presidential approval ratings: If the economy was good, people were generally happy with the president; and if the economy was bad, they’d get angry. But that trend broke down during the Obama administration, and neither Obama’s numbers nor Trump’s have closely tracked economic indicators. We’re in an era when the political lines are primarily cultural and demographic. And it’s not clear that some tweaks to media coverage would create a groundswell of support for Trump, without a change in his actual behavior, which would likely cause a massive shift in his polling.
Trump obviously has real political talents and insights — he won a Republican primary and a presidential election. But as his tweet shows, he’d probably be better off if he focused on governing and spent less time trying to beat political analysts at their own game.