The latest economic numbers — 266,000 jobs created in November, unemployment at a 50-year low — make one thing very clear: President Donald Trump has a path to win a second term next year.
Yes, you can quibble about whether the strong November report or the upward revisions in job gains for the last two months or the broader upswing in the economy is due to Trump and his policies. But what we know — both from our political history and more recent polling — is that presidents get credit when the economy is strong and blame when it is weak.
In a CNN poll released late last month, Trump’s overall job approval was a less-than-stellar 42% while a majority — 54% — disapproved. But those numbers were reversed when people were asked what they thought of Trump’s handling of the economy. On that question, 52% approved while 40% disapproved. (It was the only area in the poll where a majority of respondents approved of the job Trump is doing.)
The simple fact is that a) the economy is strong and b) lots of people give Trump credit for that fact.
In a series of tweets on Friday — both before and after the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its October jobs numbers — Trump championed his economic successes.
“Without the horror show that is the Radical Left, Do Nothing Democrats, the Stock Markets and Economy would be even better, if that is possible, and the Border would be closed to the evil of Drugs, Gangs and all other problems!” wrote Trump, adding the hashtag “2020.”
Earlier Friday, he had tweeted this:
“Stock Markets Up Record Numbers. For this year alone, Dow up 18.65%, S&P up 24.36%, Nasdaq Composite up 29.17%. ‘It’s the economy, stupid.'”
That famous phrase — coined by Democratic strategist James Carville during his work for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign — had to send a shiver down the spine of Democratic strategists Friday morning when the news of the stunningly positive jobs report broke. Because, well, it’s been proven right over and over again. Incumbent presidents don’t lose often. When they do, it’s usually because the economy is perceived to be weak or faltering.
Take Jimmy Carter, who saw the unemployment and inflation rates soar during his time in office and watched as Ronald Reagan promised to turn things around. Or George H.W. Bush, whose sky-high poll numbers during the first Gulf War collapsed amid an economic recession and delivered the White House to Clinton. The only other president in the last nine decades to lose a bid for reelection was Gerald Ford — and that was due in large part to his decision to pardon the man he replaced in office: Richard Nixon.
The data then is clear: It’s very, very hard to beat an incumbent president unless the economy is seen by a majority of the public to be weakening badly.
It makes sense. In election after election, voters cite the economy as the most important issue affecting their vote.
In 2016, 52% said the economy was the most pressing issue in the country, according to exit polling. Terrorism placed second on that list with just 18% saying it was the most critical issue. In the 2012 presidential election, almost six in 10 voters (59%) said that the economy was the most important issue. More than six in 10 (63%) named the economy as the most important issue in the country in the 2008 election.
So given that voters care most — by a lot — about the economy, it makes sense that if they believe a President is doing a good job on the economy they are inclined to reelect that person to keep it going.
Which would suggest that Trump is going to cruise to a second term. Except that he is Trump.
What does that mean exactly? Two things, as it relates to this conversation:
1) Trump’s approval numbers on the economy have been strong for much of the past few years — and yet his overall job approval numbers haven’t ever come close to showing that a majority approve of the job he is doing overall.
2) Trump is uniquely incapable of staying on message. If he was relentless in his focus on the state of the economy between now and next November, he would undoubtedly make it more likely he wins a second term. But Trump has demonstrated — throughout his presidency and his life — that he lacks the attention span and/or discipline to stay on any message at all.
In years and decades past, any president overseeing a flourishing economy would have a massive leg up in their reelection bid. Trump, of course, isn’t just “any” president — mostly in ways that negatively impact his chances of winning next November.
But these latest economic numbers make one thing very clear: The economy is Trump’s, um, trump card with voters — if only he knows how and when to play it.