The election is no longer all about the economy, stupid

  • The strength of the economy is typically one way to gauge how well an incumbent president might do in their reelection campaign.
  • But this time, partisan divide is more intense than ever, and voters’ favorability of their preferred candidates’ may trump the sate of the economy in priority.
  • Mallory Newall is a research director for Ipsos.
  • Sarah Feldman is a data journalist for Ipsos.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

This year broke many tried and true norms. But, even before the pandemic, the common missive “it’s the economy stupid” wasn’t holding steady. The phrase coined by James Carville, during Bill Clinton’s successful election bid in 1992 against incumbent George H.W. Bush, showed some cracks in it

And now, with the stock-market rolling from President Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis and the last jobs report before the election showing the economic recovery losing some momentum, those cracks look like gaping holes.

Traditionally, third-quarter earnings are what forecasters and election-watchers use to gauge how successful the incumbent stands to be in the sprint to Election Day. 

The performance for the third quarter of this presidential election is complicated. With a wholesale macroeconomic growth soaring, some estimates put the U.S. economy on track to hit double-digit growth this quarter. At the same time, some of those figures are so high because the economy was doing so poorly before. Millions are still unemployed and entire sectors are in financial peril. It’s a confusing, mixed bag.

Ultimately, the economy matters to elections because it’s supposed to influence how people vote. As economic conditions change, so does voting. The logic for how the economy factors into presidential politics goes something like this: most people aren’t involved in politics and don’t follow them that closely. But, people notice and vote based on their general sense of well-being, how much disposable income they have, their sense of stability in their life, and their ability to hold down a job. The cacophony of these concerns is known as pocketbook or kitchen table issues, ranging from how bills will get paid to how groceries will get purchased.

The pandemic has made the answer to each of these questions grim. Worries about paying bills and affording groceries became a reality for many Americans practically overnight. 

As large sectors of the American economy shuttered, a general sense of malaise overtook the country’s relationship to its checkbook. Yet, President Trump’s standing with his supporters or the public at large barely budged. Beyond that, the economy is one of the president’s strongest issues against his competitor former Vice President Joe Biden nationally and in key swing states. 

Digging deeper, trust in the federal government, a proxy for people’s feelings toward the president, is higher among Republicans, while Democrats mistrust in the federal government is unwavering. Most Republicans trust the federal government, regardless of whether they are unemployed or struggling to make ends meet.

Republicans hurting from the economy should trust the federal government less if the economy drove political support at this moment. The same goes for Democrats. 

But, that’s not the case.

These dynamics between President Trump and the public were present long before the coronavirus was part of people’s lives. In October 2016, Democrats were bullish on where the economy was and where it was going. The University of Michigan found that many assumed Clinton would be president. On the other side, Republicans felt pessimistic, many of whom also thought Clinton would win.

That all changed in the four months between October 2016 and February 2017. When the consumer tracker went back to ask people how they felt about their finances and the economy just weeks after Trump’s inauguration, Republicans and Democrats reversed their standing despite stable economic conditions. The switch was stark; the numbers Democrats registered in October were nearly identical to the ones Republicans reported in February and vice versa.

Partisans holding a more favorable view of their president’s economy, or viewing an opposing president more critically is nothing new. But, the degree that this became true at the onset of the Trump presidency speaks to how essential political division has become in framing peoples world. 

Why the economy is no longer a better predictor of electoral success is more disturbing. Partisanship molds the realities people exist in, whether the economy is good and whether hundreds of thousands of Americans died. If what news people watch holds so much sway over their belief in the pandemic, why would it be any different when it comes to the economy? Partisanship is the entry point for whether it really is “the economy, stupid.”

Mallory Newall is a research director within Ipsos’ public polling practice, where she specializes in issues-based research, examining public opinion trends, and designing surveys for public consumption. Her research covers a variety of audiences, including the American public, small business owners, and voters. Mallory serves as a spokesperson for Ipsos and has appeared as a commentator on the BBC, NPR, Sky News, and Newsy.

Sarah Feldman is a data journalist for Ipsos in the United States, where she covers trends in public opinion, elections, and American politics. 

This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author(s).

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