Presidential contests tend to turn on “it’s the economy, stupid,” as Democratic strategist James Carville famously summed up underdog Bill Clinton’s win in 1992.
And things look good for Trump at this time: Unemployment is at a 50-year low; stocks are at all-time highs; and forecasters project growth into 2020, especially as the trade war with China seems to be easing.
“If the status quo continues, he’ll win,” said Moody’s Analytics chief economist Mark Zandi, referring to his presidential prediction model, which is based on economic indicators, including gas prices and the unemployment rate, along with the president’s approval rating and projected turnout.
Zandi’s is just one of several prediction models that favor Trump, who also has the benefit of incumbency.
The president never misses an opportunity to boast about the Dow or the latest jobs report, and those rosy indicators give other Republicans something to run on, no matter what’s happening in Washington.
“For folks running for Congress or Senate, it’s something they can and will tout every single day,” said Republican strategist Matt Gorman.
So should Democrats worry?
“Yes,” said Carville. “Everything worries me.”
With Democrats in the midst of a presidential primary fight, there’s widespread agreement among the candidates and their biggest allies that many Americans aren’t feeling the benefits of a robust economy and that Trump can be defeated by highlighting those inequities.
While liberal megacities are booming, Rust Belt swing states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin have lost thousands of manufacturing jobs this year, after an earlier revival, due in part to trade disputes. And unemployment rates have begun to tick up a bit in dozens of battleground counties in the industrial Midwest.
In Wisconsin’s Marinette County, which Trump won by 34 points, the unemployment rate has climbed a full percentage point in the past year (though it’s still low, historically).
Stocks are up but so are costs
Democrats say rising health and child care costs, ballooning student debt and concerns about retirement savings have left many voters feeling anxious about the future, even while others are enjoying the growth of their 401(k) accounts.
Half of Americans (49 percent) worry about an immediate financial need, such as paying rent or bills, while another quarter of the population have no immediate needs but are concerned about long-term financial issues like retirement, paying for a child’s education and health care costs, according to surveys taken by Gallup.
“Virtually every cost in the life of a middle-class family is up and that dynamic is frankly one of the reasons why (Trump) won the last election,” said Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat who represents the key battleground state of Pennsylvania. “There was a frustration that neither party was addressing that basic problem.”
Those issues predated Trump, but Democrats argue he not only failed to address them, but also made things worse by undermining the Affordable Care Act and squandering his biggest legislative opportunity on a tax cut that most Americans thinkhelped the wealthy and not them.
Those messages have already started to appear in ads run by Democratic super PACs, like Priorities USA, which has spent $8.2 million since July on digital ads in swing states. Presidential candidates also have highlighted rising costs and sluggish wage growth in speeches and ads.
“The idea that Trump’s strength is on the economy is false,” said Patrick McHugh, Priorities USA executive director. “While macro indicators might suggest that the economy is doing alright, everyday Americans are not feeling that.”
The super PAC’s extensive polling of battleground states has found voters’ satisfaction with their economic situation fell 8 percentage points from May to October, and their approval of Trump’s handling of the economy dropped from a net 10 points to an equal number approving and disapproving.
Some nonpartisan polling backs that up. A new Pew survey found that while 69 percent of Americans think the economy is helping the wealthy, just 32 percent say it’s helping the middle class and only 27 percent say it’s helping the poor. And 58 percent say the economy is actually hurting the middle class and 64 percent say it’s hurting the poor.
Overall, though, a slight majority of Americans — 52 percent — approve of Trump’s handling of the economy, according to the last NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, which is stronger than his overall approval rating.
Of course, a lot could change in the next year.
Resisting Trump’s temperament
Selling their economic case will depend on Democrats not repeating their mistakes of 2016, when they focused on Trump’s temperament while he focused on telling workers he would bring their jobs back.
“We took a big mirror and projected Trump’s face on it and said to voters, look at how grotesque it is, look at how despicable it is, and we never really turned the mirrors around to focus on what’s actually going on in peoples’ communities,” said Bradley Beychok, the president of the Democratic super PAC American Bridge.
The group plans to spend at least $50 million in 2020 trying to soften up Trump’s support in conservative areas, after having compiled research on 77 counties to try to localize messages about how the president driven things in the wrong direction on jobs, health care costs and more.
Lee Saunders, the president of AFSCME, a union that represents 1.4 million mainly public-sector workers, said Democrats have gotten better at talking about bread-and-butter issues, but “can’t let impeachment take all the oxygen out of the room.”
“If you look at the Democrats who are running for president right now, these folks have started talking about how working families are being left behind,” he said. “They want to hear how you’re going to help them and benefit them on a day-to-day level.”
Democrats were cautious with their criticism of the economy when Barack Obama was still in the White House, but the 2020 presidential candidates have been relatively unified in dissecting the Trump economy:
- “Look beyond the daily headlines about the stock market and the unemployment rate, you’ll see a grim, long-term picture of our economy,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren said in an economic speech she delivered in New Hampshire on Thursday.
- “Trump said he’s going to take care of the forgotten man. He got elected and forgot them,” former Vice President Joe Biden said in an interview with CNBC last week.
- “(Trump) is saying, ‘the economy is doing great, just look at the stock market.’ And a lot of folks around the country and around here in South Bend say, ‘What about me?'” Mayor Pete Buttigieg told NBC News’ Harry Smith.
The Democratic National Committee and state parties plan to highlight what they call Trump’s “broken promises” to help forgotten workers.
For instance, in 2017 he traveled to Youngstown, Ohio, to assure voters he would revive the struggling manufacturing sector and keep open a nearby G.M. plant the automaker was threatening to close.
“Those jobs have left Ohio — they’re all coming back. They’re all coming back,” Trump told a cheering crowd. “Don’t move. Don’t sell your house.”
G.M. shuttered the plant this year.
A recent Quinnipiac survey found nearly six-in-10 Americans said they are better off financially now than they were in 2016, while a majority of Wisconsin voters (53 percent) say they approve of the way Trump is handling the economy, according to a new poll from Marquette Law School, widely considered the best pollster in the state.
In fact, Americans are so deeply polarized that even their view of the economy — not what they think should be done about it, but just their appraisal of how well it’s working today — is tied to their partisan identity.
Republicans’ view of the economy dramatically improved as soon as Trump took office, while Democrats’ view of it declined, even though the economy under the final months of President Barack Obama’s tenure and first few months of Trump looked virtually identical.
Today, 75 percent of Republicans say the economy is excellent or good, versus just 41 percent of Democrats who say the same, according to Pew.
Findings like that make Carville wonder if, in 2020, it really still is the economy, stupid.
“Trump is impervious to everything, good or bad. He just stays at 41.7,” Carville said, referring to the president’s approval rating in FiveThirtyEight.com’s average. “I don’t care how many good stories about the economy come, I don’t care about how many bad stories come, it still comes up 41.7.”