The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Americans rate Trump better on the economy. But it may not help him in November.

Which Americans disapprove of Trump overall — but approve of his handling of the economy? Mostly Biden voters.

Joe Biden supporters display flags outside the Trump National Golf Club, where President Trump was playing golf, in Sterling, Va., on Aug. 30. (Pool photo by Yuri Gripas/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock) (Yuri Gripas/Pool/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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Throughout his presidency, Donald Trump’s approval rating has typically hovered in the low 40s — a range that puts him at risk of losing reelection.

And yet, as commentators and reporters have noted, Trump routinely polls better when Americans are asked specifically about him and the economy. More Americans approve of how Trump has handled the economy than approve of Trump overall. When pitted against Joe Biden on who can better handle the economy, Trump typically leads by several percentage points.

So could this help Trump eat into Biden’s thus-far stable lead in the pre-election polls? Most likely, the answer is no. People who approve of Trump on the economy but not overall are mostly Biden supporters.

Let’s look at the polling

In early July, a Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape survey asked 6,500 American adults not only whether they approve of Trump but whether they approve of his handling of the economy and several other issues. About 46 percent approve of how he’s handled the economy, compared to 39 percent who approve of his performance overall. As in other surveys, Trump clearly polls better on the economy — even though, as Gallup surveys show, his economic approval ratings have declined as the economy has worsened in 2020.

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Of course, most Americans (75 percent) have consistent opinions on both questions: They approve of Trump overall and on the economy, or they disapprove of him on both. Only 3 percent approve of him overall but not how he’s handled the economy. About 11 percent did not answer one or both of these approval questions.

This leaves the group of particular interest: the roughly 11 percent of Americans who say they approve of Trump on the economy but not overall. Can Trump win over these voters?

For most, probably not. These voters favor Biden over Trump by 41 points — 60 percent to 19 percent, with the remaining 21 percent unsure. And when asked to evaluate each candidate separately, even those who are unsure how they would vote hold less favorable views of Trump than of Biden.

There is another lesson in these poll numbers. If the goal is predicting whether people will vote to reelect the president, it’s better to rely on overall approval ratings than to try to parse the nuances of how voters evaluate the president on different issues. In the Nationscape survey, people’s intention of voting for Biden or Trump was more strongly related to their overall approval of Trump than their opinions about Trump’s performance on 10 different issues, including the economy, health care, foreign affairs, immigration, taxes and the coronavirus.

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The lesson for Biden

Biden clearly wants to capitalize on American disapproval of how Trump has handled the coronavirus pandemic. In this survey there are a small fraction of people (5 percent) who disapprove of Trump’s handling of the pandemic but approve of him overall. Among this sliver of the electorate, Trump leads Biden by a whopping 76-13 margin. Here, too, overall approval ratings take precedence over evaluations on any one issue.

From Trump’s perspective, then, the most encouraging trend is that his overall approval rating has improved slightly — though less than many presidents have experienced in their election year. To win, he needs that trend to continue.

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The Nationscape survey project is fielded online to a sample provided by the market research platform Lucid. The sample matches a set of demographic quotas on age, gender, ethnicity, region, income and education. Respondents are sent from Lucid directly to survey software operated by the Nationscape team. All respondents take the survey online and must complete an attention check before taking the survey. The survey is conducted in English. The survey data are then weighted to be representative of the U.S. population. More information about the representativeness of Nationscape surveys is here.

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