The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The inescapable partisanship of how people view the economy

A “help wanted” sign is posted beside coronavirus safety guidelines in front of a restaurant in Los Angeles in May. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)
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One of the more interesting findings in polling over the past few years came in March 2018, a few months after President Donald Trump signed his tax-cut bill into law. A pollster working for CNBC asked Americans whether they had seen an increase in take-home pay thanks to the cuts. Most Americans said they had not. Most Republicans, however, said they had.

There are two possible reasons for that. The first is that Republicans were far more likely to work in industries where the cuts had already kicked in, whatever those might be. The second is that Republicans were simply saying that they had seen a benefit even when they hadn’t. (One sign it’s not the opposite, that it wasn’t Democrats saying they hadn’t seen something they had, was that independents, like Democrats, said they had not observed any benefit.)

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Polling is very useful, but it’s also important to recognize that there are often issues for which people are more responsive to the political environment than they might be to robustly held personal views.

Consider the University of Michigan’s measure of consumer sentiment as a good demonstration of the effect. In 2016, Democrats expressed higher sentiment than did Republicans — but when Trump took office, it flipped. Sentiment sank among members of both parties with the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, but again flipped after President Biden won last year’s election.

Others saw a similar effect. In polling conducted the week before the 2016 election, Gallup found that Republicans were 60 points more likely to say that the economy was getting worse than they were to say it was getting better. Then Trump won and, suddenly, Republicans were more confident it was getting better than getting worse. Among Democrats, the flip was reversed.

Last week, YouGov released new polling on the economy, conducted for the Economist, that shows both the predictable partisan divide on the subject and, at times, how views of key economic issues have flipped over the past year.

Overall, the country is not particularly optimistic about where things stand at the moment. Two-thirds of Americans say the economy is in “poor” or only “fair” shape, powered by the 9 in 10 Republicans who offer one of those opinions. Even among Democrats, few say the economy is in “excellent” shape.

One thing that has changed over the past year is that inflation has replaced unemployment as a central concern. In December 2020, 85 percent of respondents said that unemployment was a very or somewhat serious problem nationally, although only a bit under two-thirds said that was true of local unemployment. In the year since, those numbers have dropped sharply while concern about inflation now occupies the position that unemployment did then.

Notice, here, the change by party. In December 2020, Democrats were far more likely to identify unemployment as a problem; now, with a Democratic president, they are less likely to. Republican views have been steadier.

A similar effect occurs in the question YouGov asked about the indicators people used to evaluate the economy. Last year, a plurality of respondents pointed to unemployment and fewer to the prices of goods. Theoretically, this shouldn’t change much. But it did change, largely in response to the increased salience of prices thanks to inflation and, particularly, gas prices. Look at the swing among Republicans, though. Nearly three times as many now say that prices are the best economic indicator as said so a year ago.

YouGov found that four times as many people say inflation is a bigger problem than unemployment than say the opposite. It also found that respondents’ assessments of the direction of unemployment differed by party. So, last December, when the unemployment rate was flat month-over-month and Trump was president, Democrats were far more likely to say it increased than were Republicans. This year, when unemployment dropped month-over-month, Democrats were far more likely to correctly say it had declined.

Asked how confident they were in the government’s figures, another interesting switch emerged. This, too, should be consistent: If you think the government is undercounting the number of unemployed, there’s not much reason that should change over 12 months. But it did, with Democrats less likely now than a year ago to say that the government was putting out numbers that underestimated the extent of unemployment and Republicans more likely to think so.

Perhaps the most interesting switch centered on the presidency itself. Last year, during the Trump administration, about half of both Democrats and Republicans said the president had a lot of influence over the economy. For Democrats, this was likely accusatory, given how things were going; for Republicans, it was more an effort to give credit for the economy’s pre-pandemic robustness. Now, with Biden in the White House and the economy seen as fumbling, Democrats are less likely to assert that the president has a lot of influence — and Republicans are far more likely to do so.

This is not a novel phenomenon, obviously. But it’s a useful one to remember when considering polling on the economy: Much of how people view the country’s economic situation is clearly influenced by their view of the country’s politics.