It’s (not just) the economy, stupid!
Even if the economy does improve, Trump needs to focus his efforts on other key indicators.
It’s not looking good for Trump. Poll after poll puts him behind Biden both nationally and in the swing states. Even in states that he will comfortably carry his numbers are down. The White House is also reported to be very worried about the Senate. The likelihood is that if Trump loses Arizona, Maine, and North Carolina, then the Senate seats fall to the Democrats too.
And they should be worried. Unemployment is up near 15%, 100,000 Americans have died of Coronavirus, while his response has been the source of international condemnation. We are now less than six months away from an election and the President is desperately trying to cling onto a small and dwindling base. White evangelicals and the elderly are growing weary of him, with suburban votes and women continuing their move away from the Republican party.
There is evidence his campaign recognises this. They are spending money in the three upper-Midwestern states the President narrowly won four years ago, while spending more in Florida than ‘any other state’. In other words all defensive moves. No New Hampshire, Minnesota, or New Mexico in sight.
Few explicitly blame Trump for the coronavirus, but many will tie their perception of him to his response. The campaign therefore are pitching the ‘Great American Comeback’, or in Trump’s own words, the transition to greatness. They will use the economy as their measure of greatness. While it is currently on its knees, they are placing faith that voters see Trump, not Biden, as the man to revive it.
Both fair assumptions, right? Prior to this Trump’s economy had steadily grown and his personal polling on the subject appeared to be consistent, falling just 1% from the 2018 midterms. Most importantly, Trump beats Biden in the question “who do you trust most on the economy?”. It is pretty much the only place Trump does beat Biden and it is what the President’s team will seek to run on. After all, it’s the economy, stupid.
But it misses a more important point. It isn’t just the economy. Trump is struggling across the board, but something that ought to really worry his campaign is the the question of who cares more about average Americans. According to a Quinnipiac poll this month, Biden holds a near 20 point lead there.
Now that the economy is — to paraphrase the President — going ‘down to tubes’, voters need someone who understands their problems and offers solutions that support their way of life. The same polls suggests Biden has the honesty and the leadership skills to do exactly that.
When you pair this with a recent Fox News poll that showed voters believe Biden would do a better job on handling China (+6), managing the Coronavirus (+9), and improving healthcare (+17), the marginal lead Trump does have on the economy looks far too weak to run an entire re-election campaign on.
The question about who best represents average Americans is especially important because it was also one of the areas where Obama comfortable beat Romney in 2012, allowing him to win re-election at a relative canter, despite losing to him on message of overall economic competence, foreign policy, and leadership while having virtually identical favorability ratings. The gap was so big in fact, that Gallup Poll made it one of their top 10 electoral trends of the year.
Some reports are starting to recognise the weakness of Trump’s economic lead. A model recently published by Oxford Economics suggests that Trump will lose in a landslide, with only 35% of the popular vote. It is worth noting that this model has successfully predicted the popular vote result of all but two elections since 1948. Understandably, the model has been criticised, chiefly because it only bases “its conclusions on economic factors” while failing to appreciate the myriad of other forces.
But that is precisely what the President’s campaign is also guilty of. With the possible exception of views on China, it is unlikely that Trump will be able to reverse such huge (and growing) gaps in voter perception both on certain issues and within certain demographics.
In order to attempt to try and turn the tide, Trump has to do two things that he hirtheto has demonstrated are virtually impossible. Firstly, he needs to listen to experts. Secondly, he needs to learn from how Obama did it. Thankfully, I don’t think he’ll do either. Even if the economy does improve, Trump needs to focus his efforts on other key indicators; so far, he shows no interesting in doing so.