Why the Economy Might Not Sway 2020 Voters


Americans’ views of the economy have become so hardened along partisan lines that the economy may matter less in next year’s presidential election than in the past.

Both major political parties have emphasized the economy in the early stages of the campaign. Republicans hope that a rock-bottom unemployment rate and rising wages will cause voters to stick with President Trump despite the various scandals enveloping his administration. Democrats believe high levels of income inequality and fears of a looming recession will make voters willing to consider a new direction.

Surveys suggest that those arguments are resonating — but only with voters already inclined to agree with them. Republicans consistently say the economy is doing well and give Mr. Trump strong marks for his stewardship. Democrats are much more pessimistic, and, to the extent they do believe the economy is strong, doubt that Mr. Trump deserves much credit.

And notably, neither group’s views have shifted much in response to changing economic conditions. Earlier this month, for example, 71 percent of Republicans said they expected business conditions to be “very” or “somewhat” good over the next year, compared with just 15 percent of Democrats who said so, according to a survey conducted for The New York Times by the online research platform SurveyMonkey. Those numbers are virtually unchanged from two years ago, before trade tensions and other factors began to drag down the manufacturing sector and weaken the broader economy.

Economic conditions have historically been among the best predictors of presidential elections, and models based on those patterns suggest that Mr. Trump would be favored to win re-election if the economy remains more or less on its current path through Election Day.

But it is unclear whether historical lessons hold in an era of heightened partisanship.

“The predictive power of the economy is weakening as polarization increases,” said Amber Wichowsky, a political scientist at Marquette University who has studied how economic issues affect voters’ political views. “Partisans have a strong desire to interpret the economy in a way that benefits their ‘team.’”

Franklin Fullerton works in sales for a conveyor-belt manufacturer outside Charlotte, N.C. David Kugler is a materials manager for a packaging manufacturer near Allentown, Pa. The two men, both participants in the Times survey, are close in age — 61 and 58 — and say they are financially stable. But they have very different political views, and very different views of the economy.

Mr. Fullerton, who usually votes for Democrats, said business had slowed since last year. His company imports many of its parts, he said, and it has had to raise prices to cover the cost of tariffs, in some cases by as much as 15 percent. He said that he did not yet see evidence of a recession, but that he was watching warily.

“I would think twice about doing any major home renovation or anything, probably,” he said. “It enters your mind, whereas last year it wouldn’t really have entered your mind.”

Mr. Kugler’s company has also been affected by tariffs. But he said that business over all remained strong, and that the local economy had improved since Mr. Trump took office. And Mr. Kugler, a conservative Republican, said Mr. Trump’s trade policies were worth any short-term cost.

“It’s hard sometimes, but for the long haul I think it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “What China’s doing to us is just outright criminal.”

Mr. Kugler said the economy was the most important issue to him, and said he would consider rethinking his support for Mr. Trump if conditions soured — he just doesn’t expect that to happen. Mr. Fullerton, too, said he tried to evaluate evidence objectively, though he acknowledged that his political views probably affected his interpretation.

“I’m sure I’m human, and I probably don’t always see both sides of everything,” Mr. Fullerton said. “I think I’m guilty of it. But I try to be aware of it.”

The partisan divide in consumer confidence is a relatively new phenomenon. In the early 1980s, Democrats and Republicans largely saw eye to eye on the state of the economy, according to the University of Michigan’s long-running survey of consumer sentiment. By the 2000s, a gap had emerged, with partisans tending to view the economy more positively when their preferred party was in power. The gulf has only widened since.

“They’re seeing everything through the partisan lens right now,” said Laura Wronski, a research scientist for SurveyMonkey. She noted that the partisanship dwarfed even factors likely to have a bigger impact on people’s financial well-being, like education, income and employment status.

Partisanship hasn’t completely drowned out economic reality. Measures of consumer confidence have ebbed a bit over the past year, as tariffs and other factors have led to slower growth. And confidence dipped more substantially in January, when the partial government shutdown temporarily idled hundreds of thousands of federal workers, and again when recession fears dominated headlines in late summer. In both cases, however, confidence quickly rebounded.

Economists and political scientists say an outright recession would almost certainly erode consumers’ confidence, regardless of their political views. But the current economy leaves enough room for interpretation. Republicans can point to the low unemployment rate and strong stock market. Democrats can point to slower hiring and a weakening manufacturing sector.

“You could see how different people who aren’t experts could look at the economy and reach different conclusions based on their partisanship,” said Peter K. Enns, who leads the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at Cornell University.

One group of voters is less likely to view the economy through a partisan lens: independents. Only about 15 percent of registered voters report being independents without a preference for either party, but they could prove decisive in next year’s election. Their assessment of the economy hasn’t moved much during Mr. Trump’s term, either, but their views have generally been closer to those of Democrats than of Republicans.

“Independents seem to register the onset of a recession more quickly,” he said. “If independents are leaning closer to Democrats on the pessimism side, that bodes poorly for Trump.”

Scott Baughan, an independent voter and self-described moderate in Detroit, said he had mixed feelings about Mr. Trump’s economic stewardship. He said the 2017 tax law had helped the economy, but he criticized it for not doing more to help the middle class. He said Mr. Trump was right to get tough on China, but said he didn’t think the tariffs had been executed effectively.

“It’s not exactly what I’d call a coherent strategy,” he said.

Mr. Baughan, a 27-year-old medical student, didn’t vote for either major-party candidate in 2016 and hasn’t decided how he will vote in 2020. The economy will be one factor in his decision, he said, but right now it isn’t pushing him strongly in either direction. He dismissed the claims of Trump supporters who say the economy is the best it’s ever been, and those of critics who have been predicting a recession for months. He compared Democrats and Republicans to two people each looking through one lens of a pair of 3-D glasses.

“Each side is seeing half the picture and completely unaware that the other half exists,” he said.

About the survey: The data in this article came from an online survey of 2,701 adults conducted by the polling firm SurveyMonkey from Oct. 7 to Oct. 13. The company selected respondents at random from the nearly three million people who take surveys on its platform each day. Responses were weighted to match the demographic profile of the population of the United States. The survey has a modeled error estimate (similar to a margin of error in a standard telephone poll) of plus or minus three percentage points, so differences of less than that amount are statistically insignificant.


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