Trump's economic advantage within the Democratic base

Ironically, the latest lackluster jobs report shows how formidable Trump will be in 2020. Beneath the headline numbers, are the most important indicators of how Americans are doing in this economy. They are doing remarkably well, and more importantly for Trump, this is particularly true in demographic groups Democrats dominated in 2016.

By all accounts, the August employment report showed tepid growth. The economy generated only 130,000 new jobs, with only 96,000 in the private sector. Further, the previous two months’ growth was lowered by 20,000, dropping the three-month average to just 156,000.

While those figures wrote the headlines, overlooked ones told the broader economic story. The unemployment rate stayed at historically low levels of just 3.7 percent. Simultaneously, labor force participation continued to rise, reaching 63.2 percent, while average hourly earnings have increased by 3.2 percent over the last year. 

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For the large majority of Americans, these are the real economic variables, the DJIA or GDP being relevant only in so far as they affect these basic household ones. The reason is simple: For a prolonged period, having a job has been a dicey question for too many.

It is through that prism, and particularly in comparison with this recent past, that the current economy looks so good for Trump. 

At the same point during the Obama administration, and almost two years (Q3 of 2009) after the economy had begun growing again, August 2011 unemployment stood at 9.1 percent. There were 14 million unemployed then, compared to today’s 6 million.

Even comparing August 2016, President Obama’s eighth year in office, Trump’s economy looks strong. Just three years ago, unemployment was 4.9 percent, the number of unemployed were 7.8 million — almost 2 million more than today.

Additionally, those higher figures came despite a lower labor force participation rate: 62.8 percent versus 63.2 percent today. This resulted in 6.3 million fewer Americans working then: 151.6 million versus 157.9 million today. To cap it, in August 2016, hourly wages had increased just 2.4 percent over the previous year, compared to 3.2 percent today.

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The secondary comparisons are just as telling. In 2016, there were 2 million long-term unemployed, today that figure is  1.2 million. In 2016, there were 6.1 million Americans with part-time employment for economic reasons, today, it’s 4.4 million.

While the economics are good for Trump, the politics could be even better in specific demographic groups.

According to 2016 exit polling, women were 53 percent of voters. Women broke 54 percent for Clinton, with Trump winning just 41 percent. In August 2016, women’s unemployment rate was 4.5 percent, today it is 3.3 percent. 

In 2016, black voters were 12 percent of the electorate and went 89 percent for Clinton and just 8 percent for Trump. In August 2016, their unemployment rate was 8.1 percent, today it is 5.5 percent. 

In 2016, Hispanics voters were 11 percent of the electorate and went 66 percent for Clinton and 28 percent for Trump. In August 2016, their unemployment rate was 5.6 percent, today it is 4.2 percent.

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Democrats depend heavily on these important voting blocs. In each, their improved unemployment situation outpaces that of the general population, which is already remarkably improved. 

If Trump’s enhanced economy is already likely to be an important consideration for the general electorate, imagine what its magnification could mean in groups on which Democrats rely so much. In America’s zero-sum two-party system, it would not take large swings in such key groups to yield big political impacts — and even with Democrats winning large 2016 margins within them, they still lost the presidency.

Finally, Democrats risk further compounding Trump’s economic advantage by nominating a candidate who either professes, or is perceived, to espouse a fundamental break from America’s historically free-market economic system. Not only would Democrats have to fight on comparisons of unfavorable economic performance, but a divergent philosophy as well.

The result could set up a lethal 1-2 political punch: As formidable as Trump could be running against the economic history of his predecessor, he could be even more so running against the economic theory of his challenger.

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 through 2000.