President Trump got more good economic news Friday, with the announcement that the gross domestic product had grown by an annual rate of 3.2 percent in the first quarter of 2019. It was an acceleration from the disappointing 2.2 percent figure from the last quarter. It also gave Trump 3 percent growth for a full year, a key economic state that he has promised.

And it’s leading some to declare the Trump economy a game-changer. Conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt went so far as to declare this weekend that “The 2020 election isn’t going to be close":

This will come as news to #Resistance liberals, who are certain Trump will lose, because they dislike him so much. They still haven’t figured out that 40 percent of the country love him and at least another 10 percent are very much committed to considering the alternative in comparison to Trump, not reflexively voting against him. That decile is doing very well in this economy. Unemployment remains incredibly low. The markets are soaring. That’s not a given for the fall of 2020, but better to be soaring than falling 18 months out.
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Democrats have to campaign on something else besides a great economy, rising values of savings, low unemployment across every demographic, clarity about allies and enemies abroad, and a rebuilding military. It’s a tough needle to thread, condemning everything about Trump except all that he has accomplished that President Barack Obama couldn’t or wouldn’t. Not just tough — it’s practically impossible.

It’s a bold prediction, certainly — even as the idea that the economy is paramount in voters’ minds is taken as an object of faith in American politics. (“It’s the economy, stupid” and all that.)

But it’s also a prediction that history doesn’t really support.

If you look at presidents who have had the kind of economy Trump does, you’ll find it’s hardly a panacea. Of the last five presidents who had an unemployment rate below 4 percent (it’s currently 3.8 percent) and a year of GDP growth over 3 percent — as Trump does today — only two saw his party retain the White House in the next election. And both of them basically inherited that economy.

Since the end of World War II, there were five periods in which we’ve had unemployment under 4 percent and a year of 3 percent GDP:

  • January 1951-October 1952 (Harry Truman)
  • January 1953-November 1953 (Dwight Eisenhower)
  • February 1966-April 1967 (Lyndon Johnson)
  • April 1968-April 1969 (Johnson-Richard Nixon)
  • April 2000 (Bill Clinton)

I cross-referenced those months with where Gallup put each president’s approval rating at the time, and here’s what it produced:

As you can see, there are relatively few months in which the economy met these conditions. As you can also see, there was no guarantee that these conditions meant people would be in love with the incumbent president. In fact, the average presidential approval rating across all these months is 45 percent — slightly higher than where Trump is today.

That number is dragged down by Truman, whose economic numbers toward the end of his presidency look great by today’s standards but masked the difficult transition he was making from the wartime economy of World War II to a peacetime economy. The Korean War was also a drag on his public image, among other factors. Truman’s approval rating bottomed out at 22 percent in early 1952. That year, he considered seeking reelection but ultimately withdrew. Republican Eisenhower succeeded him.

Johnson made a similar decision to bow out in 1968, thanks in large part to the Vietnam War, and he was succeed by Republican Nixon. Nixon and Eisenhower both would later win reelection after starting their presidencies with these economic numbers and strong approval ratings.

In the past 50 years, only two presidents have had any period of time with these kinds of economic numbers: Clinton for one month in April 2000, and Trump. Clinton’s party lost the White House seven months after he joined this exclusive club, and polls show a majority of registered voters say they’ll never vote for Trump in 2020.

As with all historical looks, we have a relatively young country and a relatively small data set of presidential elections, which makes it difficult to say with certainty what the data mean. Each of these presidents had a host of unusual variables affecting their political standings, and two of them had unpopular wars that obscured whatever progress was being made on the economy — and ultimately contributed to their decisions not to seek reelection.

But that’s also kind of the point. Elections are complex, and other factors come into play, even though the economy is clearly important. Trump’s approval is on the low side for presidents with this kind of economy, and these presidents don’t have a great track record of keeping their party in the White House.

So it’s kind of curious to predict that he’ll win, much less by an overwhelming margin.