Wage growth shaping up as key 2020 factor for Trump

Wage growth shaping up as key 2020 factor for Trump

President TrumpDonald John TrumpFeinstein, Iranian foreign minister had dinner amid tensions: report The Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Harris readies a Phase 2 as she seeks to rejuvenate campaign MORE’s re-election prospects may turn on one key economic indicator: wages.

Trump has argued that the 2020 election will come down to the economy, and even tweeted this week that his eventual Democratic opponent will have “to run against maybe the best Economy in the history of our Country (and MANY other great things)!”

But certain aspects of the economy can carry more weight with voters. While GDP and other figures play a significant role, one of the most influential economic measures in the eyes of voters is how much money they take home in each paycheck.

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When it comes to wage growth, the data point to some bright spots for Trump, but with some potential clouds looming on the horizon.

Since Trump took office, wages have increased about 2.4 percent, similar to the 2.3 percent rate during the last two years of the Obama administration, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Economists say there are a few reasons that wage growth is up.

For one, the labor market is tight. When the unemployment rate is low and there are plenty of job openings, employers often have to raise wages to keep their workers from seeking higher pay elsewhere.

Most people are also taking home more pay as a result of the 2017 GOP tax-cut law.

And those two developments may be paying bigger dividends among Trump’s base, according to Mark Muro, policy director for the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.

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“The uptick in smaller red places may be more noticeable and more significant for those places in the short run, period,” Muro said. “To the extent that that matters or influences local political behavior and voting behavior, that’s for real.”

An analysis by Muro and his colleague Jacob Whiton found that average annual employment growth in counties that voted for Trump jumped from 1.5 percent before Trump took office to 2.6 percent in the first 21 months of his presidency. Counties that voted for Clinton grew at a slower pace, from 1.7 percent to 2.2 percent.

Wages, they say, followed a similar trend.

But Muro warned that the gains may be short-lived.

“I do think this is a temporary moment, because ultimately the structural factors are very unhelpful to red places,” he said, noting that urban centers are home to stronger economic engines, with highly educated populations, technology hubs and higher-wage industries. “The blue economy is in much better shape for the long haul.”

A drop-off in wage growth in red states would likely have an impact on the 2020 election, which is still more than 18 months away. Economic conditions that matter most are the ones in the run-up to Election Day.

“What really matters for election outcomes is the growth in disposable income in the year or even the two quarters right before the election,” said Stan Veuger, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute.

Some economists attribute part of the recent wage bumps to states and cities adopting higher minimum wages, a staple of the Democratic platform that Trump opposes.

But how things will play out just ahead of November 2020 is anyone's guess.

“Economists are very bad at predicting when the economy will turn, but for now there’s no real reason to think things will suddenly turn south. So it’s safe to imagine personal disposable income will continue to grow at a reasonable rate,” Veuger said.

But Trump has two other issues to worry about when it comes to how his voters see their economic fortunes.

One is perceived inequality, a major theme among 2020 candidates like Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersHarris readies a Phase 2 as she seeks to rejuvenate campaign 2020 Dems put spotlight on disabilities issues Lee, Sanders introduce bill to tax Wall Street transactions MORE (I-Vt.) and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Harris readies a Phase 2 as she seeks to rejuvenate campaign 2020 Dems put spotlight on disabilities issues MORE (D-Mass.), who lament a “rigged system” that benefits “millionaires and billionaires.”

“I think the American people are extremely frustrated with the unevenness of this economy, and I think that Democrats are not wrong to think that there is a lot of frustration out there,” says Muro.

The other is that some costs are drowning out wage gains that amount to just a few percentage points.

“I think people notice the wage gains, but they also notice that their cost of living is rising quickly,” says Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. “The cost of housing is very strong, and rent prices are growing really quickly.”

“I think people are recognizing that the economy is better and their wage growth reflects that, but I’m not sure they’re convinced they’re in a better spot because they’re struggling with the other costs,” he said.

That could prove problematic for Trump if he asks voters in 2020 if they’re better off than they were four years ago.

But Zandi says that when it comes to politics, some economic factors are more pressing to voters than their wages.

“Number one is: Do I have a job? That’s the most important. Number 2 is gasoline prices, because that is the single most visible price people see each and every day, and they use to gauge their cost of living. Number 3 would be wage growth, so that is a gauge for financial well-being, but it’s third on the list,” Zandi says.

With unemployment near historic lows and gas prices creeping up to five-year highs, wage growth could end up being the tie-breaker.