Politics

Donald Trump Has Even Lost His Polling Advantage on “Handling the Economy”

How did this happen?

Trump gives a speech against a backdrop of boxed-up washing machines and stacks of what appear to be metal sheets.
Donald Trump at a Whirlpool factory in Clyde, Ohio, on Aug. 6. The things behind him are washing machines. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Well, here’s something, in the New York Times write-up of its latest Upshot/Siena College poll:

The president has even lost his longstanding advantage on economic matters: Voters are now evenly split on whether they have more trust in him or Mr. Biden to manage the economy.

The electorate’s notion that Donald Trump was a business expert who could be trusted to “handle the economy” better than a Democratic president was always factually shaky, but it seemed to be built on a foundation of belief extending deep into the Earth’s mantle. He beat Hillary Clinton on the question in national 2016 exit polls even though he lost the popular vote to her overall; this April, with employment numbers and securities markets in a Trump-induced plummet, he still led Joe Biden by 8 points on the measure per Morning Consult. The Times would write even in June that Trump still had a “substantial advantage” over Biden on the economy among battleground-state voters.

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Other polls have found Biden closing the gap on the issue for months, though, and now the Times is calling it even, too. If all the polls are accurate, it means there is no remaining 2020 election issue on which voters trust Trump more than Biden.

At the same time, a number of outlets are starting to publish what you might call pre-mortems for the Trump campaign, behind-the-scenes reports that outline the criticisms that will be made of various scapegoats (including the president himself) if the Trump 2020 operation cannot pull off an upset. A frequent observation in these pieces is that Trump’s impulsive obsession with personal feuds and conspiracy theories has prevented him from talking as much as he could have about how well the economy was doing pre-COVID, and how he might be better suited than Biden to revive it post-COVID. (The idea that COVID isn’t related to Trump’s stewardship of the economy is ridiculous, but we’re talking about political messaging here: It doesn’t have to make sense. It just has to sound convincing to enough people to win the election.) If Biden does win, the question of how Trump lost his leverage on the economy question will be one that a lot of operatives and pundits are thinking about. Did he just not have enough discipline on the subject?

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Maybe not entirely. Trump, for sure, occupies himself with a great many issues—like this week’s burgeoning feud with Lesley Stahl—that do not have any empirically documentable relevance to critical voters. But he does try to talk about the economy. He brought it up five times— referring to February’s environment as the “greatest economy in history,” one which had “boomed like it’s never boomed before”—in the first presidential debate. He spent a few minutes arguing that an economic recovery is ongoing during his hourlong NBC town hall last week, responded to a question about the corporate tax rate with an answer that included the word jobs four times, and then emphasized during his closing statement that his administration had “created new levels of jobs that nobody thought was possible.” His campaign also pivoted in September toward running TV ads about jobs rather than TV ads about law and order.

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Perhaps the problem is how Trump talks about the subject. Here is his answer to a town hall question about getting the economy “back on track,” with interjections by moderator Savannah Guthrie:

TRUMP: So, it’s happening. We just set a record, 11.4 million jobs. We are going to have a phenomenal third quarter, which will be announced on Nov. 1, just prior to the big Nov. 3 day, where I think you’re going to see a red wave. But we’re going to have a tremendous announcement. I believe. I mean, we’re going to find out, but GDP is going through the roof. Jobs, real estate, houses. So many things are happening. So—people were saying, we’re going to have a 42 percent unemployment. Look, this was a thing that came into our country and it happened a hundred, more than a hundred years ago, and it happened now. They were talking about a 42 percent unemployment rate.

GUTHRIE: Who was talking about that?

TRUMP: It came out, it just came out—

GUTHRIE: I heard 20 percent.

TRUMP: … at 7.8 percent unemployment, and people can’t even believe it. Our economy is going to be—next year, if we don’t have somebody that raises taxes and quadruples taxes, which they want to do, and it kills everything. Our economy is going to be phenomenal, next year. We’re going to have a phenomenal—and, I’ll tell you, Savannah. We had the greatest economy in the history of our country last year, including the state of Florida, where we are now. In Pennsylvania, in North Carolina, in Ohio, every place. We had the greatest economy we ever had. We had to close it down, we saved two million lives. We’re opening it up. We have a V-shape and it’s coming back. It’s coming back very fast.

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Three questions:

1. Can you discern from reading the above what it was that Trump actually did—and, thus, could do again—to increase rates of growth and hiring in the U.S.?

2. Can you discern why Trump believes his approach on such issues is superior to Biden’s?

3. Forty-two percent unemployment? What?

The answer to 1 is a hearty no. Trump says the economy was booming, that it’s booming again, and that next year it’s going to boom more, but he never provides an explanation for why that happened. Why the lack of detail? Well, historically, in both business and in politics, Trump has proved that he is very effective at selling an idea, to certain people, of how great things are going for him and how they are about to be going even better. He is effective at describing a vision of what will happen, if you buy a ticket for the train he is driving, that is compelling to millions of Americans. The economy pitch in his 2016 convention speech was one of multipronged optimism: He was going to cut taxes, cut regulations, throw out our crap trade deals and negotiate better ones, and spend a ton of government money to build things. And it was all going to work because he was a successful businessman who understood how wealth is created and was too rich to be influenced by special interests. Hell, just writing it out now, it sounds pretty good! That’s a good-sounding platform!

But Trump is not good at describing what he has accomplished, and why it worked, because he doesn’t really do things, and to the extent that he does, other people do those things for him. He’s not the kind of guy who is digging into analyst reports about the casino industry at 1 a.m. and thinking about changing the balance of square footage between slots and table games or tweaking the formula that determines which major bettors receive comped hotel rooms. The subtle and surprising connections between causes and effects are not interesting to him. If the casino isn’t doing great, he lets it go bankrupt and borrows a bunch of new money to buy a new high-profile property somewhere else.

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You can see this pattern playing out regarding his administration’s economic policy. The president let other people write his big tax cut, and it wasn’t received well by the public because it was so slanted toward high earners and corporations; he’s not conversant with the details of it enough to make a case that it had positive effects for regular people. His Cabinet secretaries handle the regulatory rollbacks for him. The sweeping new protectionist trade deal with China didn’t happen, nor did the big infrastructure spending, in part because he didn’t have the focus to overcome orthodox Republican resistance on those subjects. And there are no actual plans in his pocket for a second term. He’s been inconsistent about whether he supports passing a coronavirus relief/stimulus bill and has not been able to get enough other Republicans behind it to make one happen. There is no obviously popular economic concept or achievement available for him to tie himself to, except what employment numbers looked like in February because of an upswing that started in 2009, in the way that Biden has tied himself to the widely supported notion that the most important step in economic recovery is containing the pandemic.

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A typical politician could cover this up with the right kind of bullshit. But Trump isn’t a typical politician, and he doesn’t worry about basic talking points or conventional wisdom. This benefited him in 2016 when he ignored the party establishment’s ideas about what Republican voters wanted and successfully bet that they would care more about undocumented immigration and “Islamic terrorism” than they did about fiscal austerity or personal rectitude. But it is hurting him now because he’s not capable of putting together the kind of message, for example, that Mike Pence laid out during his debate with Kamala Harris:

We’ve already added back 11.6 million jobs because we had a president who cut taxes, rolled back regulation, unleashed American energy, fought for free and fair trade, and secured $4 trillion from the Congress of the United States to give direct payments to families [and] save 50 million jobs through the Paycheck Protection Program. We literally have spared no expense to help the American people and the American worker through this.

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Later, Pence argued that because of the 2017 tax bill, “the average American family of four had $2,000 in savings and taxes. And with the rise in wages that occurred, most predominantly for blue-collar, hardworking Americans, the average household income for a family of four increased by $4,000.” Pence rated notably better than Trump on both “policy” and “performance” metrics in FiveThirtyEight’s detailed polling of individuals who watched the debates.

A similar dynamic is evident when Trump talks about what Biden would do. The president’s instincts come from the hyperbolic and paranoid world of Fox News and talk radio, and he seems to truly believe that Biden wants to enact a “radical left” agenda of paradigmatically higher taxes, oppressive environmentalism, and socialized health care. This attack has not resonated with voters, and even the moderators of the debates—Fox’s Chris Wallace and USA Today’s Susan Page—have been better than Trump at framing Biden’s agenda in a way that connects more plausibly to Biden’s actual plans and the typical concerns that swing voters have about Democratic candidates. “You would pay for that new spending by raising $4 trillion in taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations,” Page said to Harris about the plans proposed by her ticket. “Some economists warn that could curb entrepreneurial ventures that fuel growth and create jobs. Would raising taxes put the recovery at risk?” It was Wallace, not Trump, who asserted that Republicans believe in a “free market”—the free market being the kind of vague but positive-sounding concept that Americans tend to say they like, particularly older Americans—and contrasted it with Biden’s support for “big government, big taxes, big spending.” (Sounds terrible!) You could almost feel Wallace, who personally leans conservative, begging Trump to just say some normal Republican general-election stuff for once.

Finally there is that 42 percent thing. As Guthrie notes, there does not appear to be anyone who actually recently predicted that the unemployment rate would reach 42 percent. But there was someone who claimed in 2015 and 2016 that the “real” unemployment rate under Obama was exactly 42 percent: Donald Trump, who may have taken the number from a blog post involving a thought experiment in which students and disabled people, for example, were counted as “unemployed.” So what seems to have happened is that Trump pulled a number that he’d egregiously misused four years ago to attack Obama’s record and attributed it to an imaginary person using it to attack his record in the present.

This is how the brain of the guy we are dealing with works. It only does one thing well, and that isn’t “having a command of detail” or “remembering what his advisers told him to say.” It’s “finding a new audience to dazzle with confident predictions about the great things that are on the verge of happening for anyone who trusts Donald Trump.” And it’s looking more and more like the 2020 American electorate is not that audience.

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