The most recent national polls have been pretty bleak for President Trump. All show him trailing Biden anywhere from four to 12 points. A majority of voters disapprove of the way he's handling the coronavirus pandemic. And, less than one-third of the public think the economy is in good shape. 

Yet, when it comes to the question of which candidate would do a better job on the economy, Trump holds an advantage over Biden anywhere from three to ten points. 

This isn't the first time we've seen this disconnect between voters' overall opinions of the president and their opinions of his economic acuity. Back in January, for example, a Fox News poll found Trump with a 56 percent approval rating on his handling of the economy, even as his overall job approval rating was just 45 percent, and he trailed Biden by nine points (41 percent to 50 percent). 

Why are voters still willing to trust Trump on the economy, even as we are mired in the midst of an economic downturn? 

A GOP strategist who has been involved in conducting focus groups of suburban voters tells me that Trump benefits from the fact that these voters don't blame the president for the current economic collapse, and "they think it [the economy] was good before, why can't he make it that good again?" This is true even of voters who tell them that they are voting for Biden this fall. 

What is keeping these voters from supporting Trump is not that they are disappointed by the economy, but they are exhausted by the chaos. The three words that matter most to these suburban voters, said this strategist, are "Normal. Presidential. Leadership."

A poll taken by the centrist Democratic group Third Way, and shared exclusively with the Cook Political Report, finds similar antipathy to the president's overall behavior from suburban voters, even as they give him decent marks on the economy.

Third Way has been doing extensive research and data modeling in the swing states of Arizona, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Using data from the analytics firm Catalist, Third Way did a deep dive on these four states to estimate how many people are likely to vote and for which party in suburban counties (and urban and rural ones, too) this year. What they found was that Democrats "are in position to win majorities in the Michigan and Pennsylvania suburbs, which would set them up to win both states. Democrats should get close or just reach a majority in the Florida, North Carolina, and Wisconsin suburbs, which would put them in a dead heat with Republicans in these states.And Democrats are on target to win a majority in Arizona's suburbs, but preliminary estimates still show Republicans with a slim advantage statewide. But additional analysis is needed for Arizona."

In other words, writes Ryan Pougiales, senior political analyst for Third Way, "The battleground suburbs are where 2020 will be won or lost."

The survey Third Way shared with me was conducted by David Binder Research (7/22-26) of 1,200 suburban 2020 likely voters in Arizona, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. This was an overwhelmingly white group (85 percent) and almost half (47 percent) had a college degree or higher. When I questioned whether this sample was too heavily skewed toward white college voters (a group that is already soured on Trump and thus less 'swingy' than other types of voters), the Third Way team says that the matches other voter validated data they have seen of these suburban areas.

In this survey, Trump is deeply underwater in terms of his overall job approval (39 percent) and vote share (Trump takes just 39 percent to Biden's 55 percent). But, when it comes to handling the economy, these swing state suburbanites give Trump a decent 48 percent approval rating. 

These voters think the economy is in bad shape, and don't expect it to get better anytime soon. Just 30 percent rate the economy as good today, and only 33 percent think it will be better in November. 

But it is that lack of optimism about the economy that worries Third Way. "Voters with the lowest expectations for a recovery," they write, "may be most impressed by marginal economic progress."

For example, respondents were asked to gauge how likely they would be to support Biden or Trump based on three different economic scenarios. One where the unemployment rate stayed the same, one where the unemployment rate dropped to 8 percent, and one where the unemployment rate increased to 14 percent. 

Here’s what they found. 

  • Under a hypothetical 14 percent unemployment rate, support was highest for Biden (42 percent) and lowest for Trump (25 percent).
  • Under the current unemployment rate (11 percent), Biden had a 9-point advantage (37 percent to 28 percent). 
  • But, if the unemployment rate were to drop to 8 percent, a number we'd normally consider unreasonably high, support for Biden and Trump is evenly divided (35 percent Trump to 34 percent Biden). 

As such, argues Third Way, "Trump's best shot back into the race is convincing suburban voters we are in, or he can lead us to, an economic recovery."

The GOP strategist conducting focus groups with swing suburban voters also found traction for the GOP argument that a Biden Administration would lead to more taxes and less economic vitality. While these suburban voters "don't see Biden in the same vein as say, an AOC," said this strategist, "they worry about the party moving too far left on issues like taxes."

To keep Trump from getting the upper hand on the economy, says the Third Way, "Democrats' best counter is that the economy can't get on the right track until we address COVID-19—and Trump has shown he can't handle the virus."

That has been a pretty consistent message from speakers at this week's DNC Convention and for good reason. It's an easy sell. Already, according to the Third Way polling, 80 percent of these suburban voters agree—including 52 percent who strongly agree, that "the economy will never make a full comeback until we are able to effectively manage the coronavirus pandemic." Among persuadable suburban voters, writes Third Way, "52 percent 'strongly agree' with a message that the economy would be better today if Trump had taken the virus seriously from the start."

But, warns the centrist Democratic group, "messages that focus on only the economy (and didn't tie it to the virus)" don't test nearly as well with swing voters. 

The good news for Joe Biden is that Pres. Trump is unwilling or unable to keep a disciplined focus on his one remaining strength. Instead of leaning into a vision for economic recovery, the president is more interested in picking Twitter fights with Goodyear or the USPS. But, the Third Way poll suggests that even a moderately improving economy could give him traction. 

On Thursday night, Joe Biden will have the opportunity to lay out his vision for his presidency, including his plans to revitalize a struggling economy. In order for Biden to win over (or keep on board), suburban voters, he needs to do two things:  convince them that he's got a plan to get the virus under control and assure them that his economic policies will follow his more centrist instincts. 

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