Voters always vote with their pocketbook, right? The last two presidents who lost reelection, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter, both had the bad luck of a weak economy throughout much of their terms. In 1992, the mantra of Bill Clinton’s campaign became “It’s the economy, stupid.” In 1980, Ronald Reagan famously asked the audience during his debate with Carter “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” and set a benchmark that incumbents have feared ever since.
But maybe things are evolving. When people get used to a strong economy, some voters may take it for granted, allowing other issues and priorities to creep into the forefront. If President Trump’s favorability were tied just to the economy, he’d now enjoy a rating more like 60 percent instead of the 44 percent high-water mark he reached in the Post-ABC poll this week.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the economy is as strong a year from now as it is today. If that is the case, voters will not be as anxious about pocketbook issues as they were in 1980 or 1992. They may have more bandwidth to worry about other issues — and the personal differences between the candidates. And when it comes to who gets the credit for the economy, the breakdown along partisan lines is striking, if unsurprising. Republicans say it’s Trump’s doing, while Democrats say Barack Obama is responsible.
So let’s imagine if Trump asked Reagan’s question in a debate with his Democratic opponent. The answer from most could be generally, “Yes, I am better off financially than I was four years ago.” But voters who take the Trump economy as the norm and not particularly the result of his policies might well respond to a countermove. Imagine Trump’s opponent asking in reply: “Are you more worried, shell-shocked, dumbfounded and embarrassed than you were four years ago? Do you want the craziness to stop?”
In the Post-ABC poll, Trump’s job approval was 51 percent on the economy but substantially less for every other major issue (42 percent on taxes, 40 percent on immigration and foreign policy and in the 30s on others). As far as net positives go, this survey suggests he’s a single-issue president. A separate poll by Monmouth University asked an interesting question: “Has [Trump] been giving enough attention to the issues that are most important to your family?” Here again, just 41 percent said yes while 55 percent said no. If Trump loses, it doesn’t look like it will be because of the economy. It will be because he has alienated so many people through his behavior and his conduct in office.
That being said, I also thought this was the reason he would lose in 2016. It was obvious that Hillary Clinton was a terrible candidate, but I didn’t believe her weaknesses could be fully exploited when Trump had just as many, if different, negatives. Still, I do not think Trump’s personal characteristics have gotten any better since 2016, and he may face a stronger opponent.
Has the roller-coaster ride of wild tweets, the constant antagonism, the vulgar interactions or the plain old unpredictability become exhausting to the electorate? Or are voters by now desensitized to Trump being Trump? Will there even be a clear contrast between Trump and his opponent once the GOP opposition research teams have revealed their findings, Trump has assigned his foe a nickname and generally savaged them for a couple of months?
There is still a long way to go until November 2020, and much can change, including the economy. But Trump’s behavior probably won’t. Attacking his erratic and offensive demeanor didn’t make the difference in 2016, but come next year, it just might.