Not that long ago, the strength or weakness of the economy was considered the most important factor in a presidential election. An incumbent who presided over a time of robust growth and employment (Ronald Reagan in 1984 or Bill Clinton 1996) won reelection. Those leading during a time of economic distress (Jimmy Carter in 1980 or George H. W. Bush in 1992) lost. Those of us of a certain age have been quoting James Carville's "it's the economy, stupid," for more than 30 years.
Recently, however, voter opinions of the economy have become less predictive of the election outcome.
Back in 2012, the campaign of Republican nominee Mitt Romney argued that the country's pessimism about the state of the economy and their distrust of Barack Obama's handling of it would ultimately doom the incumbent. In the end, Obama won rather handily, thanks in large part to his campaign's ability to recast the debate from one about the state of the economy into one about who is best qualified to understand the struggles of average Americans.
In 2018, the party in the White House lost control of the House, despite a robust economy. Why? Many voters who appreciated the job President Trump was doing on the economy were turned off by his polarizing style and behavior.
In 2020, the pandemic-induced economic slow-down was a significant factor in Trump's loss. But, just as important was the antipathy to Trump himself.
By 2022, record inflation didn't doom Democrats in the midterms. In fact, among the plurality of voters who rated the economy as "not so good," 62% still voted for the incumbent party. Why? Voters' concerns about the extremism exhibited by many of the Republican candidates proved to be more salient than their worries about the high rate of inflation.
Today, the polling data shows a pessimistic and worried electorate; 74% of Americans think the country is headed in the "wrong direction," 72% describe the economy as poor and just 38% percent approve of the job the president is doing on the issue.
One reason for Americans' dour mood is the continued toll of inflation on everyday lives. Concerns about paying for "day-to-day costs" continue to rank as a top priority.
Another factor is partisanship. A May CNN poll highlights this very clearly. When asked what would do the most to improve your view of the economy, 37% said lower inflation, while 36% picked "change in leadership in D.C."
If inflation is indeed the most significant reason for Biden's low economic ratings, it's fair to assume that the two parties would agree that lowering inflation would be the best way to improve the economy. Yet, twice as many Democrats (47%) as Republicans (26%) said lower inflation would best improve their opinion of the economy. Meanwhile, 53% of Republicans and just 14% of Democrats said a "change in leadership" in DC would do the trick.
A recent Quinnipiac poll found that just 41% of Americans approve of the job Biden is doing on the economy. Yet, in a head-to-head matchup against Trump, Biden is at 48%. In other words, many of those who disapprove of the job he's doing on the economy are voting for him anyway.
Others argue that traditional measurements of voter opinion on the economy are ineffective. "Asking people about the economy is no longer a reliable measure of the state of the economy," one Democratic strategist told me. "I don't even think consumer confidence works anymore. Only behavior works as an indicator."
Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg makes this point as well, and argues that the party needs to do a better job telling the story of the economy's success under Biden.
Which brings us to this week's roll-out of "Bidenomics" and whether Team Biden can successfully recast the narrative about the state of the economy.
In his speech Wednesday in Chicago, Biden touted the success of policies pursued under his watch, but also spent a considerable amount of time contrasting his vision with that of a Republican party that is committed to "trickle-down" economics that have "failed the middle class."
White House senior officials Anita Dunn and Mike Donilon, noted in a recent memo that the "President, members of his Cabinet, and senior Administration officials will continue fanning out across the country to take the case for Bidenomics and the President's Investing in America agenda directly to the American people, and to call out those who want to drag our country backward by returning to the failed trickle-down policies of the past."
In other words, the White House is going to play offense on the economy and not allow Republicans to define the rules of engagement.
This strategy suggests that the White House sees the challenge going into 2024 as a messaging problem. But I'd argue that there's also a messenger problem.
A poll released last week by NBC found that 68% of all voters say they have concerns about Biden having the necessary mental and physical health to be president, including 55% who say they have "major" concerns.
"What also stands out," wrote NBC's First Read, "is how concerns about Biden's mental and physical fitness have grown since we last asked this question in Oct. 2020 – when 51% of voters said they had concerns, with 38% having "major" concerns."
If you are worried that Biden is not up to the physical challenge of another term, there's a good chance that bleeds into your perceptions of his current tenure. This can hold true about his handling of the economy as well. Voters may be feeling ok about the economy, while also finding it too risky to put its stewardship in the hands of someone as old as Biden.
One Democrat I communicated with this week argued that "the best response to the age attack is a message of judge him by his record and if he can get s*&^ done rather than the age number. The Bidenomics message feels like a part of that effort."
Another Democratic strategist concurred saying, "there's nothing you can do about the age other than show him as vibrant as you can. But you can begin to hopefully move the needle on the economic feeling."
The other key factor, of course, is the trajectory of the economy over these next few months. While partisanship has made it harder for a president to get more than a bare majority of Americans to give him credit or blame for a strong or weakening economy, it matters at the margins, especially among voters who are less politically engaged.
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