For Democrats, there is great fear in the run-up to the 2020 elections: a booming economy could save Donald Trump.
The adage "it's stupid economics" sums up this conventional wisdom in four words: "Voters hold the president accountable. The financial health of the United States and their perception of how they do it economically should be the most important factor voting. Politico recently explained how, using economic predictors, Trump seems "on the road to a landslide".
But the link between the economy and the presidential approval has become "more and more devoid of ties," as several political scientists writing to Political Behavior say. The break began under the Clinton administration and has considerably weakened under George W. Bush. By the time Obama took office, the two men were completely separated:
Under Obama's mandate, neither supporters nor supporters reacted to the economy; both groups had made their decision and the economy had no statistical impact on the presidential approval of Democrats or Republicans. Preliminary signs indicate that the same goes for the Trump Presidency.
CNN's Harry Enten captured it that way, "For current presidents, overall approval ratings are far more telling of fate."
John Sides, the political scientist who with Lynn Vavreck wrote the founding book The bet about the 2012 presidential election, I said by e-mail: "This could complicate the election forecasts."
In other words, does the economy really tell us if Trump will be re-elected in 2020? Who knows! We are in unknown territory. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that the factors beyond which Democrats prevail in the primary to face Trump will be at stake during the 2020 campaign.
We should start here, as Vavreck pointed out: Trump is the outgoing president, and holding this position is a proven advantage in presidential elections. Its degree and its reasons are the source of the debate, but a table drawn from the research of David Mayhew published in Political Science Quarterly in 2008 proves it (and was only reinforced by the victory of Barack Obama in 2012):
So, Trump starts with a clear advantage before the 2020 campaign. Let's see what we can learn – and what we can not – from some of these other indicators about what could happen in 2020.
After consulting with Sides, I chose to focus on four of them: Trump's approval rate, consumer confidence, the US gross domestic product, and the unemployment rate.
Trump's presidential approval is stubbornly low
The direct polls between Trump and any potential Democratic candidate seem almost useless at this stage. Apart from Joe Biden (who is not yet a candidate) and Bernie Sanders, many Americans have not yet expressed their views on the various Democrats in search of the nomination of their party.
But presidential approval ratings have always been closely linked to electoral behavior, and everyone knows Trump. Here is the average popularity rating of RealClearPolitics President, from the beginning of his presidency until now:
Trump has always been unpopular in his first two years. At its best, it was up to now 7 points more unpopular than popular. A recent rise quickly eroded. And as Vox's Ezra Klein wrote last summer, it defies a relatively solid economy:
"The number of Trump polls is probably 20 points lower than a president where consumer sentiment is as strong as it is today," said John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University, who analyzed approval of economic indicators by presidential approval.
Here is what we can say: judging by the economy, which is the traditional engine of presidential approval, the number of polls Donald Trump should be much, much higher than today. Far from finding a winning strategy, he seems to have found a loser despite a winning hand.
Trump's approval rating is the metric to watch as we support all the unpredictable twists that could precede the 2020 elections. House Democrats may discover more scandals by investigating the Trump government. The results of Robert Mueller's investigation will certainly be recorded. An international crisis would probably also affect the opinion of voters on the president.
Consumer opinion does not really look so strong
Before diving into the economic data, a warning from Sides: the debate in the political science circles is whether voters care about the year before the elections or the two previous years.
Anyway, when we think of November 2020, we have barely entered the economic period that voters will use to assess the country's situation and the Trump presidency or we have not even arrived yet and nothing of that that has happened so far will not count for us. the time people go to the polls.
"Changes in economic indicators matter closer to elections," said Sides. "So the resulting economic trends, if any, have probably not happened yet."
But we will continue, starting with consumer sentiment, a useful way to understand what Americans think about the economy.
The University of Michigan provides a monthly snapshot of the situation, based on a survey that asks American consumers if they feel better or worse than a year ago, if they expect to be better or less well in the year, expect a bad year for the whole country next year and up, and think it's the right time to do major purchases in the household.
Here's how the UM consumer confidence index changed during Trump's presidency:
As you can see, it is a noisy metric. Data from early March show that consumer confidence continues to rebound. But in the long run, American consumers feel a little less optimistic than when Trump came into office or in much the same way.
This still represents a significant improvement over the sentiments of citizens for most of the Obama presidency, while pessimism persisted following the Great Recession. But it's not the American renaissance that Trump likes to pretend to supervise.
GDP growth rates are a little better news for Trump
With our last two variables, GDP growth and unemployment, Sides offers a more important contextual element: the important thing is not the absolute number, but the trend observed since the president took office. As noted by Sides, the re-election of Ronald Reagan with a 7% unemployment rate may seem surprising until you remember that the unemployment rate was 10% when he took office.
Keeping this in mind, I decided to consider the last two years of the Obama administration and the first two years of the Trump administration. Here is the trend line of the GDP growth rate over this period:
In general, GDP grew a little faster under Trump than at the end of the Obama presidency. To leave alone if the president deserves credit for this improvement, it augurs well for his chances of reelection if it continues.
The question is whether it's okay. The Federal Reserve has recently lowered its GDP growth forecast for 2019 from 2.3% to 2.1% and by 2020 to 1.9%. This is not a guarantee, but these projections are a warning sign for the president.
The unemployment rate is still down under Trump
Unemployment under Trump has largely maintained the same trend as in the last two years of Obama – that is, a steady decline.
Two more specific economic indicators are therefore rather interesting for Trump. But the consumer sentiment and the approval rating of the president are both a mixture and a disaster.
There are a few other caveats to note. First, these macroeconomic trends obviously do not take into account the electoral college or the way presidential campaigns are conducted and won in the United States. The way states are doing and feeling has an enormous impact. Second, the economic models cited by Politico include other indicators (gas prices, inflation, etc.) that we have not covered.
Anyway, the messy picture here is probably appropriate. Trump is unpopular and consumer confidence is uncertain, but the underlying economic data is sound. The president is probably considering better chances of reelection than his bad ratings of approval or the never-ending stream of bad news would suggest. But it is less likely than it probably should, given the state of the economy and the benefits of occupying the premises.
Let's start by recalling – and I can not emphasize it too much – how much time we have left. Not only in the news and Twitter cycles, but for the economy. We are entering the period that will probably be decisive in the way American voters evaluate Trump at the end of his term. The 2020 campaign is just beginning.