With that jobs report comes further confirmation that a severe economic downturn will loom over the 2020 election. And traditionally, that has meant curtains for an incumbent president like Donald Trump.
But is that necessarily the case today? There are reasons to be skeptical.
The comparison to the Great Depression will be tempting, given the size of the economic challenges we face. After the market crash in 1929, Herbert Hoover went on to lose to Franklin D. Roosevelt in a landslide in 1932.
But there are two very important and very different questions here: 1) How bad and sustained will the current economic downturn be? And 2) How much do people actually blame that on the president rather than on a situation they believe to be largely out of his control?
While in a traditional economic downturn, it would be rather easy and logical to blame the policies of incumbent politicians, but this one is a special case. The pandemic was something that we were going to have to contend with, to one degree or another. What matters from there is how much people actually attribute the loss of life and economic strife to Trump and other leaders, and how much they think those leaders exacerbated an already-bad situation.
And on that front, things are indeed less dire for Trump than the jobs numbers might suggest — though that could certainly change depending upon the actual numbers and what lay ahead.
While the growing jobs and economic crisis has been well established by this point, Americans by and large still see the economy as one of Trump’s strong points. An Economist/YouGov poll this week showed 53 percent of people continue to approve of Trump’s handling of jobs and the economy — a number similar to where he’s been at for months. An NPR/PBS/Marist College poll from a couple weeks ago showed an even, 49 percent-to-49 percent split on that question.
The YouGov poll, similarly, showed people have more confidence in Trump than in presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden on the economy. It asked whether the economy would get better or worse if either man was elected. Voters were split on the question on Trump (36 percent said it would get better, compared with 35 percent who said it would get worse), but were slightly negative on Biden (30 percent better vs. 38 percent worse).
The poll also asked how each man would handle a recession, and again the advantage was to Trump. While Americans were split (43-43) on whether they were confident in his ability to manage a recession, just 33 percent were confident in Biden’s ability to do so, while 44 percent said they were “uneasy.”
To the extent the economic downturn is truly registering with people, it doesn’t seem to be something they lay at Trump’s feet — at least not yet. And it doesn’t seem to be a situation in which they are thinking a change would help. That could always shift as the coronavirus outbreak progresses, but views of Trump on that response track strongly with his overall approval numbers, and views of his handling of the economy (which are better than his overall numbers) haven’t changed much.
Regardless of those numbers, this is clearly something that concerns Trump a great deal. From the beginning of the outbreak, he has made clear how concerned he is about being robbed of what he hoped to make his signature reelection issue: the economy. He’s now pushing for a reopening of the economy despite a steady death rate and despite cases in the country still growing outside the early hotbed of New York City. This has led to tensions with health officials who worry that relaxing mitigation measures might not just lead to increased loss of life but force a longer outbreak — a situation that would logically lead, by extension, to more economic turmoil.
As Trump presses forward, though, he may be better served paying attention to how much people truly blame him for the economic troubles versus how much they blame the virus. Viewing this as a zero-sum game in which a bad economy means Trump loses is overly simplistic. It’s true that Trump is polling like an underdog right now, but that’s been the case for a while, and the fundamentals of the race don’t seem to have changed significantly yet. It’s entirely possible that whatever economic pain comes won’t be laid at his feet.
A prolonged outbreak resulting from a failure to appreciate the size of the crisis and easing up too early, though? That could be just as dangerous — if not more. And that’s a much simpler question for voters to ask themselves, if the situation in this country continues to be one of the worst in the world or even deteriorates.
This post has been updated with Friday’s jobs numbers.