Just for kicks, let’s throw out this prediction 14 months in advance: If President Trump loses his bid for reelection, the primary culprit he will identify will be Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell.
It’s not that risky a prediction. Trump’s already telegraphing his frustrations with Powell who, Trump apparently feels, increased interest rates too early, slowing economic growth. And for Trump, everything in 2020 comes down to the economy. Setting aside the obvious importance of his aggressive and often toxic proposals on immigration, Trump’s 2016 election was predicated on being the business guy who could right an already mostly righted economy. If he doesn’t have that, what’s the pitch?
The president and his team have so far projected confidence about both the health of the economy and how that health will translate into electoral success. Historically, strong economic numbers have meant positive results for the incumbent president’s party. But then, strong economic numbers have also usually meant not getting blown out in midterm elections and, thanks in large part to Trump’s low approval numbers, that’s exactly what happened in November.
So we can say it like this: A strong economy isn’t a guarantee of victory for Trump, but it’s probably a necessity for Trump to win. And with the economy looking a bit more wobbly these days, that’s an ominous sign for Trump. And probably for Powell.
New Washington Post-ABC News polling released Tuesday suggests that economic uncertainty could lead to political weakness for the president.
There have been a few constants over the course of the past four years. Nonwhite Americans are broadly skeptical of Trump. White Americans are more receptive, with whites who don’t have a college degree — a group that tends to skew older — offering Trump the most robust support.
That has been consistent in approval numbers from Post-ABC polling over the course of Trump’s presidency. Whites with and without college degrees approve of Trump’s job performance at lower rates than they voted for him in 2016 (according to Pew Research Center exit poll analysis), but approval among college-educated whites has been closer to that 2016 vote figure.
(This is admittedly a bit apples-to-oranges, but a comparison to 2016 does give us some sort of benchmark to evaluate how Trump is doing.)
Where things get interesting is when we break out those non-college numbers by gender. The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein pointed this out: White women without college degrees are much less supportive of Trump now than they were in November 2016. Our new poll has that group 14 percentage points less approving of Trump as president than it was of Trump as a candidate — and indicates that approval of Trump has dropped dramatically since our July poll.
That drop is more significant than the approval drop among college-educated whites and correlates with a more subtle, not-statistically significant drop in the percentage of white women without degrees who view the economy positively. Among college-educated whites, the drop in positive views of the economy was steeper; that group for the first time in our polling views the economy less positively than white men without college degrees.
Notice, too, how views of the economy just before Trump took office (at far left) were similar among white men and white women without college degrees — but over Trump’s presidency, a gap has emerged between those groups.
White women without college degrees now view the economy about the same as Americans overall on net. Within that group, there’s a 17-point gap between those who view the economy positively and those who view it negatively, about the same as the overall 13-point gap. Among nonwhites, the spread goes the other direction: Nonwhites are 13 points more likely to view the economy negatively than positively.
Again, we see that gap between white men without degrees and white women without degrees. That appears in views of how Trump is handling the economy, as well. White men without degrees overwhelmingly approve of how Trump is doing on the economy while white women without degrees are more split. (Overall, less than half of Americans approve of how Trump’s doing on the economy.)
At the big picture level, those data aren’t terrible for Trump. White women without college degrees — a group that made up a quarter of the electorate in 2016, according to Pew, and that backed Trump by 23 points — still are more likely to approve of how Trump’s doing on the economy than not.
Dig into specifics, and the picture gets more grim.
For example, most women in that group think a recession is likely next year — by a 24-point margin. White men without degrees are significantly less pessimistic.
What’s more, more than 4 in 10 of those white women without degrees think Trump’s policies are increasing the risk of there being a recession.
Most white women without degrees disapprove of Trump’s handling of trade negotiations with China.
There’s a wide, noteworthy gulf between the views of white men without degrees and white women without degrees on this point. White men are 30 points more likely to approve of Trump’s handling of the trade war than to disapprove. White women without degrees are 16 points more likely to disapprove.
A similar gap appears on a much more tangible question. Asked whether they are concerned about the trade war increasing prices, two-thirds of white women without degrees say that is a concern. More than half of their male counterparts say they aren’t concerned — the only group of those illustrated below in which a majority isn’t worried about price increases.
It’s tricky to suss out where causality lies here: Are white women without degrees more skeptical of Trump generally and therefore less likely to support his economic arguments, or are economic concerns pushing down support for Trump? This is also one poll; it will be important to track how these views evolve over the course of the 2020 campaign.
Whites without college degrees made up 63 percent of Trump’s votes in 2016, according to Pew’s analysis. If the economy is tamping down enthusiasm among half of that group, that’s an ominous sign for Trump’s reelection.
And an ominous sign for Jerome Powell’s mental well-being, post-Trump.