The House officially delivered to the Senate two articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump last week on the same day that the Dow Jones Industrial Average finished above 29,000 points for the first time.
That striking juxtaposition encapsulates the contending forces shaping the presidential race: pervasive doubts about Trump’s values and behavior vs. widespread economic satisfaction.
The new stock market high symbolizes an economy that has produced steady gains in gross domestic product, improving wages and the lowest unemployment rate in decades, not only for the nation overall but also for groups often marginalized in the workforce, including African Americans and Hispanics.
The start of only the third Senate presidential impeachment trial, in turn, epitomizes Trump’s volatile and disruptive behavior in office, in which he has shattered norms and customs and perhaps violated the law.
The pivotal question of 2020 may be whether the economy lifts Trump just enough to survive the concerns about his conduct and character, or the personal doubts that he’s generated deny him just enough credit for the economy to allow the eventual Democratic nominee to prevail.
“It is going to be a battle between whether the economy is good enough to allow Trump to survive everything else,” says Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz.
Since the Ukraine scandal broke last September, public opinion over Trump has unfolded as a kind of standoff. While many Democrats have expressed disappointment that the cascading revelations about the President’s pressure campaign on Ukraine have not materially lowered his approval rating, many independent analysts have been equally struck that growing satisfaction with the economy has not lifted Trump’s national standing much, or at all, depending on the survey.
Polls leave little doubt that Trump is benefiting less from good economic news than his predecessors. Through the last decades of the 20th century and the first years of the 21st, polls “absolutely” showed a clear relationship between economic satisfaction measured in surveys such as the University of Michigan’s Index of Consumer Sentiment and public approval of the incumbent president, said John Sides, a Vanderbilt University political scientist.
“From the beginning of the [University of Michigan] survey through the administration of President George W. Bush, there was a fairly straightforward relationship: Higher scores on this index equal better approval ratings,” Sides wrote recently in The Washington Post.
That relationship began to fray under President Barack Obama. Most experts attributed the change to the nation’s increasing political polarization: Polls show that Republicans and Democrats are now more likely to view the economy positively when their party controls the White House. That meant Obama didn’t benefit as much as many scholars expected when the economy slowly recovered after the crash of 2008.
But Trump, as with many things, has pushed this dynamic to a new peak. Polls capture an unmistakable improvement in voter attitudes about the economy, but those same surveys show that Trump’s standing is much weaker than that of any of his recent predecessors among the voters who express such economic contentment.
Feeling good about the economy, but less so about Trump
The University of Michigan’s venerable Index of Consumer Sentiment has briskly marched upward over the past year: It stood at 99.1 this month, up from 91.2 in January 2019. Recent national polls by CNN and Quinnipiac University found that about three-fourths of Americans now call the economy excellent or good, also up substantially since last January. In Quinnipiac’s polling, the share of Americans who give Trump positive marks for managing the economy spiked from 46% in August to 57% in December.
But Trump’s overall approval rating among voters happy with the economy conspicuously lags his predecessors’.
Among voters who described themselves as satisfied with the economy, Bush’s approval rating stood at 71% in a 2006 NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll, according to figures provided by Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican firm that co-manages the survey. In 2013 and 2015, Obama similarly received a positive approval rating in the poll from 75% of Americans who described themselves as economically satisfied.
By contrast, in the December national CNN/SSRS survey, Trump’s approval rating among Americans who described the economy as excellent or good stood at just 52%, with 43% disapproving, according to detailed results provided by CNN Polling Director Jennifer Agiesta. A survey released last week by the nonpartisan polling firm EPIC-MRA in the pivotal swing state of Michigan likewise found that among the majority of respondents who called the state’s economy excellent or good, just 53% approved of Trump’s overall performance, while 45% disapproved, according to figures provided by the pollster.
The latest CNN/SSRS poll, released this week, illuminates the same trends from another angle. In the poll, 55% of respondents said they approved of how Trump is handling the economy, a robust number that might normally predict smooth sailing to reelection for an incumbent president. But 29% of the respondents who approved of Trump’s economic performance say he abused his power in his dealings with Ukraine, and 23% said they still disapproved of his overall job performance, according to detailed figures provided by the CNN polling unit.
The result of this resistance is that despite the spike in positive attitudes about the economy, Trump’s overall approval rating has increased by only about 1 percentage point over the past year in the cumulative index maintained by fivethirtyeight.com.
He’s gained more ground in the CNN/SSRS poll over the past year, though he remains in a tenuous position: The latest CNN/SSRS poll, released Monday, put Trump’s approval rating at 43%, up from his 37% showing in the first survey of 2019.
It is a president’s overall approval rating that best predicts his reelection prospects, political scientists such as Abramowitz generally agree.
Polls testing attitudes about possible 2020 matchups for Trump show a similar departure from previous presidents. Exit polls found in 2004 and 2012 that Bush and Obama, as the incumbents, each won about 90% of voters who described the economy as excellent or good. But Trump drew just 55% of voters who expressed such economic satisfaction when matched against former Vice President Joe Biden in the December national CNN poll; Biden held an 80-point lead among the minority of voters who called the economy only fair or poor, enough to top Trump overall.
Again, the latest CNN survey shows the same pattern from a different angle: In a hypothetical matchup, Biden drew nearly one-fourth of the respondents who said they approved of Trump’s economic performance; he led Trump by more than 90 points among those who disapproved of the President’s economic record.
The EPIC-MRA Michigan survey produced the same pattern: Trump led Biden among voters positive on the economy by only 53% to 43%, while Biden led by more than 30 points among those who called the economy only fair or poor, enough for a 6-point overall lead in the crucial state.
“What the polling shows is that Trump hasn’t gotten people to evaluate him primarily in terms of the performance of the economy,” said Sides, co-author of the 2018 book “Identity Crisis,” which analyzed Trump’s 2016 victory. “They are just not. There are other dimensions that are dragging him down. It’s some combination of the other issues he wants to talk about, where his positions aren’t as popular, or it’s his personality and his personal reputation, his behavior, that continually detracts.”
Repelling those his policies have helped
Part of the problem Trump faces is that his language and agenda, particularly on issues that touch on race or culture, and his unpredictable and belligerent style as President especially grate on many of the voters who are benefiting most from this economy: whites holding at least a four-year college degree.
In the Michigan poll, for instance, while 67% of college-educated white women described the state of the economy as excellent or good, just 37% approved of Trump’s job performance. (Among college white men there, the numbers were 71 and 49.)
“His overall leadership style is repugnant for those who most benefit from this economy, and that is the more affluent,” says longtime Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg.
Another problem for Trump is that he’s not inclined to center his message on the good economic news. Rather, his bent is to angrily portray his coalition as under siege by forces – ranging from immigrants and minorities to disdainful coastal and media elites – that only he can protect them from.
“He is really comfortable with his ‘American carnage’-type rhetoric,” notes Sides, referring to the striking phrase Trump used in his 2016 convention acceptance speech. “And finding a way to pivot to a campaign whose tenor is fundamentally optimistic and is not predicated on fear … and anxiety, whether it’s coming from immigrants or China or Democrats, to me that’s just not Trump’s natural way of communicating or existing in the world. Contrast that with Ronald Reagan, who was maybe optimistic to a fault.”
The conundrum confronting Trump is that the more he uses that polarizing and racially combustible rhetoric to energize his base, the more he reminds many of the swing voters who are thriving economically exactly what they don’t like about him. As I’ve written before, Trump may be trapped on a kind of treadmill, where he has already alienated so many voters satisfied with the economy that he has no choice but to center his efforts on maximizing turnout among his base, even though the tactics he employs to do that deepen his problems with the swing voters.
The impeachment inquiry threatens to reinforce – or even compound – Trump’s problems with economically satisfied white-collar voters, because it is highlighting many of the aspects of his presidency that most concern them, including questions about his ability to manage foreign policy, his respect for the rule of law and doubts about his honesty. In Quinnipiac polling last spring, a third of voters who approved of Trump’s economic performance still said he was not honest, and one-fifth said he lacked strong leadership skills and did not care about people like them, according to results provided by the pollster.
The reaction to “the Impeachment trial is going to be driven mostly by partisanship,” notes Abramowitz. “But nevertheless, there’s going to be a lot of negative stuff that is going to come out, as we are seeing with these latest revelations” from Lev Parnas, the indicted former associate of Rudy Giuliani.
A warning for Democrats, too
All of these indications of resistance among economically satisfied voters are warning signs for Trump. The polling trends in Wisconsin – the state both sides now consider most likely to determine the 2020 winner – offer an offsetting warning for Democrats.
There, as in the national surveys, the share of voters who approve of Trump’s economic management is rising: While 48% of Wisconsin voters approved of his handling of the economy last August, that jumped to 55% in the Marquette University Law School poll released last week. Trump’s overall approval rating isn’t rising as fast, but it is rising: from 44% among registered voters last January to 48% in the latest survey. The new survey was the first time Trump’s disapproval rating (at 49%) had inched below 50% in the state since the pollster’s very first measure during his presidency in March 2017. In August 2019, Marquette’s surveys found Biden leading Trump by 9 points in Wisconsin; the latest poll found that Biden’s advantage, after dipping to as little as 1 point last fall, stood at 4 percentage points.
The broadening expressions of economic satisfaction evident across a broad range of voters in both state and national polls create a clear challenge for Democrats, who want to portray the economy as solely benefiting the affluent. Biden took that argument to an extreme in last week’s CNN/Des Moines Register Democratic presidential debate when he insisted that working- and middle-class families are “being clobbered. They’re being killed. … The wealthy are the only ones doing well, period.” Such portrayals may ring hollow for many at a time when the Quinnipiac December survey found that at least three-fourths of adults in every income bracket earning $30,000 or more annually called the economy excellent or good.
The hope among Republicans is that the Wisconsin results are a leading indicator: that as satisfaction with the economy solidifies, even some voters uneasy about Trump’s personal behavior will grudgingly give him more credit and grow uneasy about entrusting economic policy to a Democrat. Abramowitz is one of many analysts who believe Trump may be able to convert the economy into more of an asset if he can portray the eventual Democratic nominee as a threat to it.
“There’s a concern that if you nominate someone, like [Bernie] Sanders, maybe even [Elizabeth] Warren, who is proposing these big sweeping changes that that could scare away some voters who would otherwise be inclined to vote against Trump for other reasons,” he says.
But the Wisconsin results also show that attitudes about the economy are unlikely to ever entirely override personal judgments about Trump’s behavior and values, the issues the impeachment trial is bound to highlight.
That’s evident in the gender divergence in the poll over his economic performance. In the Wisconsin surveys, Trump’s gains since August on attitudes toward his economic management and his overall performance were almost entirely among men, with strong improvement among white men both with and without college degrees.
He showed essentially no improvement among college-educated white women, the portion of the white electorate consistently most hostile to him. And white women without college degrees, a group critical to Trump’s 2016 success in the Rust Belt states that tipped the election, registered an equivocal reaction. While the share of them who gave him good marks on the economy rose by a solid 7 percentage points, his overall approval rating with them remained almost unchanged, at a subpar 44%.
Every major data source shows that nationally in 2016 these women gave Trump at least a 20-percentage-point advantage over Hillary Clinton; but the latest Marquette survey gave Biden a 10-point lead over the President among them in Wisconsin.
While Trump’s fulminations against “elites,” immigrants and other targets create a sense among most white working-class men that he is “fighting for them,” says Greenberg, the blue-collar women have a much more divided view. Many of them dislike his confrontational style, opposed his effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act and think the economy has not improved their lives as much as they had hoped.
“Whatever the overall economic numbers are, and their perceptions of the macro economy, life is tough for these communities and their families on all these issues that they thought he would deliver on,” Greenberg says.
The precarious tightrope confronting Trump is that the erratic behavior evident in the impeachment inquiry may alienate too many white-collar white voters satisfied with the economy, while the blue-collar white women who are not as troubled by his behavior may still be too discontented with their economic situations.
Trump could hold just enough voters on both fronts to squeeze through to a second term. But the latest polls leave little doubt that he also could slip off that tightrope at either end, or both – which is why a president presiding over such gaudy numbers in unemployment and the stock market is still looking at a toss-up reelection.
UPDATE: This story, which originally published Tuesday, has been updated with more information from the CNN/SSRS poll released this week.