Mellman: Let's hope it's not just the economy

Mellman: Let's hope it's not just the economy
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Last week, one of my very smart, and very distinguished, colleagues told The Washington Post in no uncertain terms that the 2020 “election is going to be about the economy.”

Unless something changes dramatically, Democrats better hope my friend is wrong, because that’s an election we will likely lose.

Nonetheless, some Democrats are aiming for an election about the economy.

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Fighting the last war is a venerable tradition in both politics and the military, but it’s seldom the most efficacious approach to ensuring victory in either mode of combat.

Of course, elections are always about the economy in some measure, but what makes me think that’s bad for Democrats in 2020?

First, simply hearken back to 2016, when the 22 percent of voters who thought the economy was the most important issue voted for Republicans by nearly a 30-point margin, according to the exit poll.

It was the 41 percent citing health care as the most important issue who gave Democrats a margin in excess of 50 points.

Health care’s an economic issue, you say? Well, voters obviously discern some difference.

Over two-thirds thought the nation’s economy was in at least “good” shape and they supported the GOP by more  than 20 points.

Indeed, the economy is the one area in which Americans (wrongly) credit President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE with real success.

Gallup reported 56 percent approved of Trump’s handling of the economy, while a somewhat more recent survey pegged the number at 58 percent — 13 to 15 points higher than his overall approval.

Trump’s nowhere near former President Clinton’s record 81 percent approval for the economy, but he’s far above former President George H.W. Bush’s dismal 17 percent.

Perhaps more important, Trump sits well above the 43 percent average approval for presidents’ handling of the economy.

Americans approve of the president’s performance in the economic arena because they like what they see.

CNN recently found 71 percent giving the economy at least a “good” rating, the brightest public view of the economy in 18 years of their polling.

More people expect increases in their real income than at any time in the last two decades, according to the University of Michigan consumer confidence survey.

Looking ahead, Gallup found the public more optimistic about their financial futures than they have been in 30 years.

The evidence that Democrats may not want to fight the 2020 election on the economy goes beyond record positive evaluations.

Models assessing the impact of the economy on election outcomes give Trump an edge.

Goldman Sachs forecasters project a narrow Trump win based on economic factors, while Moody’s is running a dozen different economic models, all but three or four of which have Trump winning comfortably.

Academic models employing economic data agree. 

Yale’s Ray Fair suggests Trump will win by 10 points, if one plugs in today’s economic numbers, while Emory’s Alan Abramowitz foresees some 300 electoral votes for Trump, given current conditions.

All of which to say, unless something changes dramatically, if Democrats choose to fight the 2020 election on the economy, it’s likely to be a losing proposition.

It’s akin to attacking a heavily fortified position, up a steep hill, with a small unit of soldiers: it would be grand if it worked, and victory’s not completely impossible, but, most often, such maneuvers end in disaster. 

Making the economy the centerpiece of 2020 would focus voters’ attention on the one area they believe Trump is handling well, while requiring them to ignore their own perceptions of economic reality.

But none of this means Trump will win. A majority claim they are committed to voting against him.

If politics were merely a reflection of economics, and Trump was a normal president (he’s not), his approval rating would be 10 to 20 points higher than it is. 

Something’s holding his approval rating far below its “natural” level. 

Instead of attacking uphill, let’s figure out what’s already holding Trump down and focus 2020 on that.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate democratic leaders for over 20 years and as president of the American Association of Political Consultants.