Will economic recession cost President Trump the election?

Will economic recession cost President Trump the election?
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“Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Ronald Reagan asked the audience this question in his debate with Jimmy Carter in 1980. A few days later, Americans answered it with a resounding no, voting the sitting president out of the White House and the challenger in. It certainly does not take much to imagine the election this year shaping up as a rerun of 1980. Most Americans today would answer the question above with a no. Just look at the headlines of 30 million Americans unemployed as well as gross domestic product down by more than 4 percent.

The country is headed for a recession unfolding as the 2020 campaign kicks into high gear. It is not an enviable prospect for a sitting president looking for his vote of confidence from Americans. Carter is by no means the only sitting president to lose his bid for reelection in tough economic times. Remember the elder George Bush received a pink slip from voters in 1992 in the wake of a recession. His Democratic opponent Bill Clinton made sure to focus on this core issue of the campaign.

But those downturns were hiccups compared to the economic collapse today. To fathom anything like what the country faces now, one must go back to the Great Depression. Back in 1932, Herbert Hoover faced a sheer insurmountable obstacle in his path to reelection that year and lost badly to Franklin Roosevelt. So why would Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump announces new tranche of endorsements DeSantis, Pence tied in 2024 Republican poll Lawmakers demand changes after National Guard troops at Capitol sickened from tainted food MORE fare any better against Joe Biden under such similar financial circumstances? Economics moves politics, as academics and pundits are fond of saying.


But politics of course is not that simple. Simply consider the origin of the economic collapse this year. Who or what is to blame? Is it Trump? Some will say yes, but most Americans appear mindful of the coronavirus. They accept the need for public health measures that, unfortunately, have now put the economy in an induced coma. No such rationales were on hand to save Carter, Bush, or Hoover from the electoral retribution at the polls for economic disasters. So are there precedents for presidents to be spared the political wrath of voters for bad economic times?

The answer is yes. Take Barack Obama in his quest for reelection in 2012. Americans went to the polls that year with notable misgivings about the economy. Just like in 1980, more voters in exit polls said they were worse off. Yet Obama did not suffer the same fate as Carter. Obama might have had more personal appeal, and Mitt Romney was no Reagan. Aside from that, what saved Obama was judgment by the electorate about who was more responsible for the state of the economy. Was it Obama, the sitting president, or Bush, his predecessor? By a good margin, the bigger blame fell on Bush, as the Republican nominee paid the price.

The survival of Obama in the face of such economic adversity is a smaller version of what Roosevelt did in 1936. He won reelection with 15 percent of the workforce unemployed. But did voters blame Roosevelt for such a dismal rate? Of course not. He had inherited it from his predecessor. The lesson is that a sitting president who escapes blame for a poor economy need not despair about losing his job in the election.

It remains to be seen if Trump ends up escaping blame for the economic misery on his watch. For now, at least, there are no signs that his approval ratings have taken a hit over the cascade of dismal news. It is also worth noting that he is a first term president who faces no major opposition in his bid for the Republican nomination. He has won Republican primaries with close to 90 percent of the vote. Compare that with the struggles of both Carter and Bush. Since primaries were introduced a century ago, no sitting president who was spared a party challenger has lost in November. Trump would be the first if he does not clinch a victory. However, Trump has been nothing but unique in far more ways than one.

Helmut Norpoth is an election forecaster and a political science professor at Stony Brook University based in New York. He is an author whose most recent book is “Unsurpassed: The Popular Appeal of Franklin Roosevelt.”