NEW YORK — It is an enduring political question amid a pandemic recession, double-digit unemployment and a recovery that appears to be slowing: Why does President Trump continue to get higher marks on economic issues in polls than his predecessors Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush enjoyed when they stood for reelection?
Trump’s relative strength on the economy, and whether Joe Biden can cut into it over the next 10 weeks, are among the crucial dynamics in battleground states in the Midwest and the Sun Belt that are expected to decide the election. Many of these states have struggled this summer with rising coronavirus infection and death rates as well as job losses and vanishing wages and savings — hard times that, history suggests, will pose a threat to an incumbent president seeking reelection.
Yet polling data and interviews with voters and analysts suggest that a confluence of factors are raising Trump’s standing on the economy issue, which remains a centerpiece of his pitch for a second term.
The president has built an enduring brand with conservative voters, in particular, who continue to see him as a successful businessman and tough negotiator. Many of those voters praise his economic stewardship before the pandemic hit, and they do not blame him for the damage it has caused. In interviews, some of those voters cited record stock market gains — although only about half of Americans own any stock at all — as evidence of a rebound under the president.
“He’s had failures — so have I — in business,” said Dale Georgeff, 58, of Cedarburg, Wis., a Trump supporter who owns parts of a brewery and a vehicle paint shop and also sells insurance. “But I think the biggest thing is that — and I think this is how it rubs certain people the wrong way — he’s treating this like a business, and he’s running it like a business.”
David Winton, a Republican strategist and pollster, said that Trump’s ratings had been bolstered by the economy’s adding 9 million jobs in May, June and July, after it lost more than 20 million in March and April. Trump’s approval on the economy “has still generally remained positive and better than his overall job approval,” he said. “This has certainly been helped by the last three good monthly jobs reports that occurred despite the continuing restrictions on many businesses to operate.”
Polling suggests that Americans who form Trump’s voter base are less likely to have lost a job or income than Democratic or independent voters. That divergence is partially driven by race — the coronavirus crisis has disproportionately harmed Black and Latino workers, who lean heavily Democratic — but may also reflect regional divides. Small-business owners in small, more rural states that backed Trump in the 2016 election report less economic damage from the crisis than those in larger blue states, according to an analysis of census survey data by the Economic Innovation Group in Washington.
Perhaps most notably, Trump is reaping the benefits of extreme polarization of the American electorate, a divide so intense that it has overpowered long-running connections between economic performance and presidential approval ratings. For many Republican voters and conservatives, optimism about the economy and approval of the president have become deeply entwined — and for Democrats, disfavor for Trump brought pessimism over the economy even in the years of growth and low unemployment before the crisis.
Polls conducted in June, July, and August for The New York Times by online research firm SurveyMonkey underscore the degree to which even Republicans hit hard by the crisis continue to give Trump and his economy high marks. Eight in 10 Republican respondents who lost a job in the recession and have yet to return to work approve of Trump’s handling of the pandemic. Nearly 3 in 10 Republicans who lost jobs say they are better off economically than they were a year ago, a sentiment that is shared by barely 1 in 10 Democrats who have kept their jobs throughout the crisis.
“For so many of these voters, opinions of Trump are basically baked in,” said Amy Walter, national editor for the Cook Political Report in Washington. “And what the actual economic situation is in November is less important to them than it would be in a different time with different candidates.”