The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump is in deep trouble, new polls show. But he has one hidden advantage.

(Sue Ogrocki/AP)

President Trump is trailing badly in the battleground states that will decide his reelection. Yet a sizable majority of swing state voters approves of his handling of the economy, which will pose one of our biggest challenges in the next four years.

What explains this continuing disconnect? What explains the lingering advantage on the economy underlying it?

That disconnect is clearly evident in new polling from the New York Times and Siena College. Joe Biden has double-digit leads in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, three states Trump snatched in 2016, and meaningful single-digit leads in three key Sun Belt states, suggesting an expanding map.

Yet this poll also finds that across these six battlegrounds, 56 percent of voters approve of Trump’s handling of the economy. This is glaring, given Trump’s terrible ratings on other epic challenges such as the coronavirus (41 percent) and race relations (34 percent).

Why is this advantage on the economy persisting for Trump, even as we’re mired in the worst recession in nearly 100 years, and even as Trump and Republicans are resisting new economic rescue efforts amid widespread misery?

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Democratic strategists I spoke to say they’re taking this problem seriously. If approval on the economy is the only thing buoying Trump, then successfully eroding that would potentially doom him.

What’s more, if the best-case scenario for Trump is that the coronavirus and mass protests fade — leaving behind a more conventional economic argument — then undercutting this advantage is crucial.

And so is understanding what’s really driving it.

Trump’s lingering advantage

One key reason for this advantage, strategists told me, is lingering perceptions of Trump as a competent businessman. The rub is that those perceptions fused with years of good pre-coronavirus economic news on Trump’s watch, the way mixing two epoxy substances transforms them into a solid.

“Voters have always been more willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on the economy because of their false belief in his business acumen,” Democratic pollster Jefrey Pollock told me.

“Combine it with three years of relatively positive economic news,” Pollock continued, "and bringing those two together has made dislodging the positive feelings difficult.”

If so, our unique circumstances — in which economies were deliberately put into deep freeze to stop the spread of the coronavirus — might mean the recession doesn’t stain Trump in traditional ways, since those perceptions might make voters less inclined to hold him directly responsible.

In reality, Trump’s catastrophic mismanagement of the coronavirus itself was a big reason the lockdowns were so severe. But drawing that link is a challenge. And so, the most brutal ad from the Never Trumpers at the Lincoln Project connects scenes of dismal economic devastation to mounting coronavirus carnage.

This ad triggered an epic Trump meltdown precisely because it hit him squarely in his political kidney — the weak point at which Trump is struggling to keep his remaining lifeline from getting dragged under with the anchor of his epic failures.

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Other ads have aimed for this weak spot. This one from American Bridge connects Trump’s refusal to level with us about the coronavirus — an indictment of his incompetence and depraved prioritization of himself over all else — to Trump’s inability to understand ordinary Americans’ economic struggles.

These unique circumstances are in tension with the (supposed) iron law of politics — that presidents are held responsible for economic conditions on their watch. Some Democrats noted that the latter factor actually is exerting itself: New Democratic polling finds only 47 percent give him high marks for the economy.

Another possibility: A sizable chunk of voters approves of Trump on the economy but still disapproves of his overall performance, showing (as several strategists noted) that other conditions are weighing more heavily amid the pandemic and mass civil unrest.

“This doesn’t look like an election that will be about the economy exclusively,” Pollock told me.

The China syndrome

Then there’s China. One Democratic strategist with extensive Rust Belt experience told me that many voters understand China as a kind of catch-all for large economic forces that threaten their livelihoods and over which they feel little control. Trump’s oft-advertised “toughness” on China is really understood as his willingness to bust up the furniture to protect them from those forces.

To undercut these impressions, the Democratic National Committee is running ads in the industrial Midwest that pillory Trump for having “lost the trade war that he started" and getting “played” by China, clobbering farmers and resulting in a manufacturing recession.

In the shadow debate unfolding here, then, this is less about China policy than about connecting people’s real-world experiences of the economy — including the disastrous effects of Trump’s trade wars, but not limited to them — to general impressions that Trump is ineffective, reckless and incurably self-absorbed, which voters already believe.

Ultimately, it’s up to Biden

Biden advisers recently told the Associated Press that he will unveil new economic plans in coming weeks, targeted at the vast inequalities that were both revealed by coronavirus and will long outlast it.

Democrats have started running ads in the Rust Belt that share new information about Biden’s connections to the middle class and his experience in government (he helped lead President Barack Obama’s economic recovery), which seem designed to establish Biden’s values as a foundation for specific agenda items to come.

But a lot will turn on how ambitious Biden’s actual agenda proves, and whether it demonstrates a break from the incremental centrism of his past, which Biden himself has been eager to signal.

“It’s clear now that degrading Trump’s standing on the economy is a very high strategic priority,” Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg told me, adding that Biden’s record with Obama will prove a solid foundation for such efforts.

“This is a Trump advantage that Biden should be able to take away,” Rosenberg said.

Given that Trump’s central message that the “American comeback” is already underway depends on pretending that the coronavirus has been solved —even as it’s now all but certain to continue spiking, potentially requiring new lockdowns — this is probably what will happen.

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