Trump struggles to win over voters reaping economic boom

The fate of President TrumpDonald John TrumpWarren unveils Native American policy plan Live-action 'Mulan' star spurs calls for boycott with support of Hong Kong police Don't let other countries unfairly tax America's most innovative companies MORE’s reelection campaign may rest with voters who are benefiting from a decade-long economic recovery that accelerated on his watch, but who disapprove of his conduct in office.

Call them the moral market-watchers — disproportionately male, younger professionals in the suburbs whose portfolios have grown during Trump’s presidency, though they take issue with his behavior.

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Those voters represent a vexing challenge for a president who has been more narrowly focused on his base than any of his predecessors in modern history. They are not a part of Trump’s core supporters, and he has shown little interest in persuading skeptics to his side.

Polls consistently show Trump gets stronger marks for his handling of the economy than for his overall job performance. A recent Economist/YouGov survey showed 51 percent of registered voters approved of Trump’s handling of the economy, with 46 percent approving of his job performance. And a CNN survey found 45 percent approved of Trump’s job performance, compared with 52 percent who liked what he’s doing with the economy.

The moral market-watchers who exist within that divide, a new analysis shows, represent a potent pool of swing voters Trump must fight to win over before November 2020.

The analysis of six polls was conducted by Navigator Research, a joint product of the Democratic polling firms Global Strategy Group and GBAO. Those polls found a group of about 6 percent of voters who are conflicted about Trump’s performance in office.

In 2016, about 39 percent of the voters in that group favored Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Hill's Morning Report — Trump and the new Israel-'squad' controversy Colorado candidates vying to take on Gardner warn Hickenlooper they won't back down Trump seeks to project confidence on economy at New Hampshire rally MORE, 32 percent voted for Trump and 29 percent backed a different candidate.

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Worryingly for Republicans, and Trump himself, those voters broke for Democratic congressional candidates by 20 percentage points in the 2018 midterm elections.

The voters are a “suburban, affluent type of person who’s probably doing OK but is very troubled by the president’s behavior and everything they see from him all the time,” said Nick Gourevitch, a pollster at Global Strategy Group who helped conduct the analysis. “There are people out there who feel good about the economy but really don’t like the president. Are those people really going to vote to reelect the guy?”

A Trump campaign spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

Party strategists said these voters were critical in handing Democrats the House in 2018 and they will be critical again in 2020, as part of the ongoing political realignment that has once again shaken the two parties’ coalitions.

“There is little doubt that this is the key group of swing voters in 2020, mainly because Democrats are making zero effort to get the other group of swing voters, the blue collar ancestral Democrats who voted for Obama and Trump,” said Brad Todd, a Republican consultant who spent 2018 conducting focus groups with these types of voters.

The moral market-watchers are bullish on an economy that has grown at a fast clip since Trump's inauguration. More than four in five, 81 percent, say the state of the economy is either excellent or good, far higher than the 58 percent of Americans overall who agree. And they trust Trump over congressional Democrats to keep the good times rolling, by a 55-point margin.

In an ordinary election, voter opinions about the economy are a strong gauge of a president’s support. Former President Obama won over 90 percent of voters who thought the economy was excellent or good in 2012. In 2004, former President George W. Bush took 87 percent of the vote among those who thought the economy was excellent or good.

But today, among the moral market-watchers, the economy is less salient. Only a small handful, 17 percent, say Trump’s job performance on the economy will be the most important factor in their vote in 2020.

Trump’s conundrum is the opposite of the one Obama faced as he ran for reelection in 2012. That year, more Americans approved of Obama’s overall job performance than they did of his handling of the economy, according to pre-election polls conducted for The George Washington University, Gallup, NBC and the Wall Street Journal, and CBS and the New York Times.

In a sense, Trump may be a victim of his own success. As the economy improves and more voters feel its positive effects, their focus turns elsewhere.

“A strong economy takes people’s minds off economic conditions and lets them focus on other issues, unlike a collapsing economy which drives attention to just one thing. A good economy helps presidents but it also lets other issues become important motivations for votes,” said Charles Franklin, who directs the Marquette Law School poll in Wisconsin.

Today, just 13 percent of Americans say economic issues are the most important problem facing the country, according to Gallup pollsters — half the number who say that government or poor leadership is the most crucial problem. Around the 2016 election, 40 percent of Americans listed economic issues as their top priority.

When it comes to other issues at the top of the priority list, the moral market-watchers say they trust Democrats to better handle issues like taxes, health care — and even immigration, an issue on which Trump has staked out a hardline position to please core supporters.

That means the economy may be outweighed in the eyes of some voters by other policies and how Trump handles them, suggesting a tough road head for the president as he touts the pace of economic growth under his administration.

“These are the two dominant dynamics of the Trump presidency: the economy and culture, race, temperament,” Gourevitch said.