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Democrats' biggest threat is Trump's strong economy

Democrats' biggest threat is Trump's strong economy
© UPI Photo

As the economy raises President Trump, Democrats must raise other issues. Recent polling shows Trump’s increasing benefit from an impressively strong economy. It also explains why Democrats are increasingly in need of distractions from it.  As history shows, if America remains focused on Trump’s economic success, they will reelect him next year.  

On March 5, Gallup released Americans’ latest ratings of Trump by issue: “Trump’s Rating on Economy Still Top Strength, Hits New High.” Fifty-six percent approved of the president’s handling of the economy, and his 54 percent approval rating on unemployment almost matched it. His economic rating is up eight points from February 2017, and five points from February 2018.   

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Having polled presidents and the economy since Reagan, Trump is well ahead of the average rating of 43 percent. Gallup notes “Trump’s approval on the economy has not fallen below 45 percent throughout his presidency.”   

Trump’s economic good news is bad news for Democrats desperate to replace him next November. Now finally having control of one chamber of Congress, they are formalizing with hearings and investigations the questions they have raised since Trump took office. Certainly, this plays to their base, but it also distracts from the strong economy threatening to define this president a year away from reelection.  

Democrats are right to fear that definition because it has proven so historically powerful.  

Since 1916, only three elected incumbents have lost reelection: Presidents Hoover, Carter, and H.W. Bush. Each experienced negative annual real GDP growth within a year of their reelection: Hoover -12.9 percent in 1932; Carter -0.3 percent in 1980; and H.W. Bush -0.1 percent in 1991. Conversely, nine elected incumbents have won reelection in the last century. None had negative growth in their reelection year.  

Democrats are particularly vulnerable to Trump’s good economic image because it contrasts so clearly with President Obama’s. During Obama’s presidency, real annual GDP averaged just 1.6 percent growth. Even dropping 2009’s contraction, Obama’s average was just 2.2 percent. And in his last year, the economy grew a bare 1.6 percent.  

While Obama economically finished flat, Trump’s has been on an upbeat. His first year saw GDP grow at 2.2 percent, getting stronger as the year progressed. That carried over to 2018’s 2.9 percent growth. Even with last month’s minimal job growth, unemployment remains at 3.8 percent and real wages continue to grow. By conventional standards, the economy could hardly be better. 

Even with such an unfavorable contrast and such clear historical precedents, Democrats still have additional worries. The Gallup poll shows a marked difference between Trump’s economic rating of 56 percent favorability and his overall approval rating of 43 percent. The economy’s impact on reelection shows it clearly shapes popular opinion of the president. Therefore, there is real reason to believe Trump’s approval rating has considerable room to grow as America evaluates its choice next year.  

Of course, winning 56 percent of the popular vote would be enormous. No president has done that since Reagan in 1984, when he just missed 59 percent. However, consider two caveats.  

Trump’s economic rating is growing. Should his economy continue on its roll, his rating could be even higher next year. Even assuming it is not, and that Trump’s overall rating never reaches that ceiling, remember: It does not necessarily need to.  

Trump’s 2016 popular vote placement was astoundingly efficient. He turned 46 percent of the popular vote and a decided second place finish into over 300 electoral votes and a comfortable margin. Seven of the last eight presidential winners have gained less than 51 percent of the vote. Anything over 46 percent makes Trump dangerous — and that is still a full 10 percentage points below his current Gallup poll economic rating.  

Finally, according to the Gallup poll, Trump has particularly high ceilings between his economic and overall ratings among independents and Democrats.  Independents gave Trump just a 35 percent overall approval rating, but 53 percent for the economy — an 18 percentage point gap.  Even with dual low ratings (eight percent overall and 20 percent economic) among Democrats, the 12-point difference could mean picking up additional single percentage point support there — all of which comes directly from his opponent.  

Democrats are right to be worried. They should probably be even more concerned than they are. It is questionable remains how long their rearguard action with other issues can keep the focus off the economy.  

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No issue is as powerful for presidential reelection as the economy. Presidents with bad economies do not win; presidents with good ones do not lose. This has held true for the last century.

During that span, prosperity has proven more powerful than even peace. Three presidents have sought reelection with major ongoing wars — Presidents Truman in 1948, LBJ in 1964, and Nixon in 1972 — with positive economies, all won.  

The economy is seemingly the ultimate issue, the electorate’s preferred yardstick for measuring presidential performance. Certainly, trends can change and Trump remains distinct regarding many previous presidential trends. Yet, with time running short and the economy running strong, Democrats must increasingly press to stop America from defining Trump as they have past presidents: By his economic performance.

J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987 to 2000.