Any president running for reelection with an unemployment rate of 3.7 percent, sustained economic growth and a record-breaking stock market would be a strong favorite to win a second term. President Trump is the exception.
Trump may yet win a second term, but his prospects continue to be dragged down by, well, the president himself. Is there any other way to explain the mismatch between the current economic conditions and the current mood of a divided electorate?
The president is famous for cherry-picking polling results — effusive praise for polls he believes make him look good and condemnation as phony the results that do not. His favorite network, Fox News, delivered both in a poll released last week. The findings seemed to flummox the president. They also underscored why his reelection prospects are mixed despite the economy.
On Thursday, Trump happily pointed to the part of the survey showing 52 percent of Americans say they approve of his handling of the economy. “Fox poll says best economy in DECADES!” he tweeted that morning.
On Friday, his tone had shifted. “@FoxNews is at it again,” he lamented. His complaint? The same poll showed him running behind former vice president Joe Biden (49 percent to 39 percent) in a hypothetical test of the 2020 election. “There can be NO WAY, with the greatest Economy in U.S. history, that I can be losing” to Biden,” he wrote.
Perhaps the president overlooked another poll released around the same time about Ohio. A Quinnipiac University survey found 58 percent of voters say they are better off today than they were in 2016. Yet in a matchup against Biden, the president was again trailing, 50 percent to 42 percent.
That Ohio ballot test should be taken with considerable skepticism, given how the state has been trending toward the Republican Party and Trump’s eight-point victory there in 2016. But putting aside how Ohio will go in November 2020, the gap between positive perceptions about the economy and voters’ preferences in a race between Trump and Biden represent another example of why the economy is not the engine he might hope in his reelection bid.
As good as the economy appears to be, the benefits have been spread unevenly. Unemployment is low, but many American families remain far from feeling secure economically. Whether it is rising health-care costs, college tuition, inadequate benefits or limited savings, the economic divide between the wealthiest earners and most of the rest of the country remains real.
The Pew Research Center recently produced findings about perceptions of the economy. One broad result is the continuing degree to which perceptions are shaped by political allegiance. Once Trump was elected, Republicans became dramatically more positive about the economy, and that has continued to rise. Democrats, who along with Republicans were growing somewhat more positive in the final years of the Obama presidency, see the economy much less positively.
But inside the Pew findings was something that goes to the heart of Trump’s coalition. Among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents with incomes of $75,000 or more, 88 percent say the economy is either good or excellent. Among those who make $30,000 or less, just 54 percent give the economy positive ratings. Those in between, earning $30,000 to $75,000, are closer to those at the top, with 82 percent saying the economy is good or excellent.
Friday’s economic report highlighted another potential problem for the president. Growth in the last quarter came in at 2.1 percent — respectable but short of the kinds of numbers Trump has promised. Whether there is a genuine slowdown on the horizon is debatable, but if the stimulus provided by the big tax cut has mostly run its course, the president could find himself with less favorable statistics as the election nears.
The president loves to take all the credit for a period of economic growth that began long before he took office, and he has warned of disastrous consequences for the economy if he is not reelected. The Fox poll found that there was no real difference in perceptions of how the economy might change depending on whether he or a Democrat wins in 2020. Voters don’t see a Democrat as a threat to the economy.
The biggest threat to the president’s reelection is the president. That’s the real weight around his shoulders. It is about how he has behaved and the way he treats his political adversaries and the way he talks about immigrants and the tweets — racist or otherwise — that are designed to antagonize. It is his assertion, as he said last week, that the Constitution says “I have the right to do whatever I want as president.”
In the Fox survey, 63 percent say Trump’s tweet telling four Democratic members of Congress to “go back” to the countries from which they came, though three were born in the United States and all are citizens, crossed the line; 57 percent called it racist.
Trump’s behavior has helped drive many women into the Democratic camp, especially white, college-educated women. They shifted in 2016 and turned out in big numbers in 2018, backing Democratic candidates in competitive congressional races. They are a big reason the Democrats control the House and why there is even talk of possible impeachment.
Democratic strategists have closely been watching another group of women: white women without college degrees. They backed Trump in 2016, but will their support be as strong in 2020?
A recent Marist poll for NPR and PBS NewsHour found white women without a college education were almost evenly split on the question of whether they would vote for Trump in 2020, with 45 percent saying they definitely would back him and 47 percent saying they definitely would not. His margin on that question among white men without college degrees was a healthy 22 points (57 percent to 35 percent).
A memo from the liberal Democracy Corps highlighting the findings from focus groups conducted for the American Federation of Teachers in nonurban areas in Maine, Wisconsin and Nevada argued that blue-collar women have a far more jaundiced view of the president than blue-collar men.
“Trump’s own in-your-face style and partisan divisiveness is pushing them away,” wrote pollsters Stanley Greenberg and Chad Arthur. “Trump’s negative brand now dominates the positive with these key voters.”
These voters aren’t necessarily lost to Trump. But with much of the electorate locked in on their evaluations of the president, he cannot afford to see any drop-off in support among those in the coalition that elected him.
In past years, the economy’s strength would have helped assure that. Today, those rules apply less than they did. The economy will be an issue but not the only issue in 2020. The bigger issue will be the president himself.