Donald Trump has been president for 792 days. Special counsel Robert Mueller has been on the job — investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election and the possibility of collusion between the Russians and members of Trump’s campaign — for 675 days.
For Democrats, there is one big fear heading into the 2020 election: A booming economy could save Donald Trump.The adage “it’s the economy, stupid” condensed this conventional wisdom to four words: Voters (rightly or wrongly) hold the president accountable America’s financial health and their perceptions of how they and the country are doing economically should be the most important factor when they vote. Politico recently covered how, using economically based predictors, Trump actually seems “on track for a landslide.”
Trump’s presidential approval rating has been stubbornly low
Head-to-head polling between Trump and any prospective Democratic nominee seems nearly useless at this point. Aside from Joe Biden (who isn’t running yet) and Bernie Sanders, many Americans haven’t yet formed their opinions on the various Democrats seeking their party’s nomination.But presidential approval ratings have always been strongly linked to voting behavior, and everybody knows Trump.
“Trump poll numbers are probably 20 points below where a president would typically be with consumer sentiments as high as it is low,”
Trump’s approval rating is the metric to watch as we endure all the unpredictable twists and turns that might precede the 2020 election. House Democrats could uncover more scandals as they investigate the Trump administration. The outcome of Robert Mueller’s investigation will surely register. An international crisis would also likely affect how the voters feel about the president.
Consumer sentiment doesn’t actually look all that strong either
Before we dive into the economic data, a word of warning from Sides: The debate in political science circles is whether voters care about the year preceding an election or if they look back over the previous two years.Either way, when thinking about November 2020, we have either barely entered the economic period voters will be using to evaluate the state of the country and Trump’s presidency or we aren’t even there yet and none of what’s happened so far will actually matter by the time people head to the polls.“Changes in economic indicators matter more closer to the election,” Sides told me. “So the consequential economic trends, if there are any, probably haven’t happened yet.”But we will press on, starting with consumer sentiment, a useful way to understand how the American people are feeling about the economy.The University of Michigan provides a snapshot every month, drawing from a survey that asks US consumers if they feel better or worse off than they did a year ago, whether they expect to be better or worse off in a year, whether they expect good or bad times for the country as a whole in the next year and longer, and whether they think it’s a good or bad time to make major household purchases.Here is how UM’s consumer sentiment index has shifted during Trump’s presidency:
The unemployment rate is still going down under Trump
Unemployment under Trump has largely maintained the same trend we saw in the last two years of Obama — by which I mean it’s kept going down.
So two more specific economic indicators look pretty good for Trump. But consumer sentiment and the president’s approval rating are, respectively, a mixed bag and a bit of a disaster.It’s worth noting a couple of other caveats. One, these macro-trends obviously do not account for the Electoral College or the way presidential campaigns are conducted and won in the United States. How specific states are faring and feeling has an outsize impact. Second, the economic models cited by Politico include other indicators (gas prices, inflation, etc.) that we have not covered.Regardless, the messy picture here is probably an appropriate one. Trump is unpopular and consumer confidence is iffy, but the underlying economic data is sound. The president is probably looking at better odds of reelection than his poor approval ratings or the unending stream of bad headlines would suggest. But he’s got weaker odds than he probably should, considering the state of the economy and incumbency advantages.Let us end by remembering — and I cannot emphasize this enough — how long we have to go. Not only in news cycles and Twitter rants, but for the economy. We are just entering the period that will likely prove decisive in how American voters evaluate Trump at the end of his term. The 2020 campaign is, in every meaningful sense, only just beginning.