The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The two problems with the assumption that the economy will boost Trump in 2020

President Trump gives a thumbs up as his motorcade arrives at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., as he heads to Minnesota to tout the 2017 tax law. (Susan Walsh/AP)
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Jim Messina was Barack Obama’s campaign manager in 2012 when the former president won reelection. On Wednesday, Messina spoke with ABC News’ Jonathan Karl about the reelection bid of Obama’s successor.

Specifically if Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) could beat President Trump — a question that Messina answered in the negative.

“I think if you look at swing voters in this country, they are incredibly focused on the economy,” Messina said. “I think today you look at it and say that Bernie Sanders is unlikely going to be able to stand up to the constant barrage that is Donald Trump on economic issues.”

This is a somewhat baffling comment. It suggests that Sanders’s rhetoric won’t be able to match Trump’s on economic issues, which seems detached from what we know about each candidate. But it also leverages a consistent argument that we’ve heard elsewhere: The strength of the economy generally will make Trump hard to beat.

It’s an argument that has flaws.

Consider Trump’s most recent effort to leverage the economy to his political benefit in a tweet responding to Sanders’s town-hall interview on Fox News.

The event was held in Bethlehem, Pa., a region that Trump presents as “now thriving (thank you President Trump)".

As with many other places, though, Bethlehem’s current economic position is the continuation of a trend that began before Trump was president. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the unemployment rate in the metropolitan statistical area that includes Bethlehem tracked closely with the national figure until early 2016 when it ticked upward — in part a function of people returning to the workforce.

In recent months, the unemployment rate has dropped sharply, back in line with the national figure.

The rate of change before and after Trump has been fairly similar. That holds true for specific industries, too, including health care and manufacturing. One exception is mining and logging, which has seen a big uptick in the past year. It’s a focal area of Trump’s.

One question that arises is how much credit Trump will be given for the region’s economy on Election Day next year.

That question, and Messina’s argument, implies the economy will be a central pitch of Trump’s in the 2020 election. It’s not clear that will be the case.

Trump talks about the economy all the time, often in not-entirely-accurate terms, but most of his rhetoric centers instead on issues such as immigration. It has worked: In the 2016 election, the voters who cared most about the economy tended to vote for Hillary Clinton, while those most worried about immigration and terrorism backed Trump.

It has also not worked. As the midterm elections approached, Trump’s focus was on migrant caravans approaching the border and on dispatching the military to deal with migrants seeking entry to the United States. Democratic candidates were focused on health care and picked up a number of seats in the House.

Shortly before the election, we looked at two conflicting metrics that suggested very different results in the House contests.

According to Gallup data on past midterm elections, the strength of the economy suggested the Republicans would lose only a few seats in the House, fewer than 10 — at least, if past behavior was a guide.

At the same time, though, Trump’s unpopularity meant it was more likely that the Republicans would lose far more seats, perhaps as many as 40.

Both of those things couldn’t be true. The Republicans couldn’t both fare decently because of the healthy economy and terribly because of the unpopular president.

They lost 41 seats. The “unpopular president” theory was a better predictor of the results than the “good economy” one.

That’s the problem for Trump. First, good economic numbers (assuming they hold) may be less important than his ongoing unpopularity (which seems likely to hold) in the eyes of 2020 voters. Second, there’s not a whole lot of evidence that Trump will embrace an economy-first campaign message and then stick to it. Third — and perhaps less important in the context of those other two points — it remains unclear how much credit Trump will get for where the economy is now. (A Gallup poll taken over a year ago showed credit for the economy split evenly between Trump and Obama.)

Could Sanders beat Trump? Perhaps. It’s tricky to say this far out. But assuming Trump has an unassailable advantage in talking about the economy seems debatable, to put it mildly.