Americans Have Stopped Thinking the Economy Is Getting Worse

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President Donald Trump has seen his poll numbers slide during the coronavirus pandemic,with nearly every recent survey showing him losing to presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden. But even amid staggering job losses and mounting financial hardship for millions of Americans, those same polls consistently show that voters believe Trump will do a better job of handling the economy. How can that be, given record unemployment and reams of dismal economic data?

New survey data that Democracy Fund/UCLA Nationscape shared with Bloomberg Businessweek offers a rather surprising clue to how it is that Trump has maintained such resilience. Americans’ opinions about the state of the economy, which collapsed with the onset of the pandemic in March, stopped falling about a month ago and have now stabilized—a pattern that is evident across all political persuasions. 

This development was no sure thing. If we back up to late March, the Nationscape survey—which asks more than 6,000 people each week whether the economy is better, worse, or about the same as a year ago—found a steep drop among Democrats, independents, and Republicans who said it was getting better:

That drop coincided with the collapse of the stock market and the onset of shutdowns and stay-at-home orders in most states across the country. While Republicans maintained a sunnier outlook than other groups, their darkening opinion about the economy shifted in the same direction.

“There can be partisan differences in interpreting reality,” says Rob Griffin, research director for the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, “but there’s hard limits to what that can look like in the face of overwhelming evidence.” 

Americans’ economic outlook continued to worsen until about mid-April. But then it stopped falling, even as job losses, furloughs, and bankruptcies continued to mount:

For now, sentiment about the economy appears to have stabilized among all groups. That’s keeping Trump’s numbers from falling further. If you squint at the most recent chart, you can begin to detect signs of the reemergence of the intense political polarization in attitudes toward the economy that prevailed before the virus struck: Republican sentiment appears to be inching up, while Democratic and independent sentiment looks to be drifting down. 

Barring a second wave of infections, I’d expect to see that disparity widen, as the two presidential campaigns push differing accounts of how the economy is faring now that Americans are tentatively (ornot so tentatively) emerging from lockdown.

What effect Trump’s economic handling has on his reelection chances is anyone’s guess, though it’s clearly a bright spot in an otherwise grim period. But his ability to maintain a lead on the economy even during the current devastation may not reflect his response to the crisis—or anything specific to Trump at all.

“When you ask the American public about who’s best suited to handle the economy, Republicans have had a decades-long advantage, just as Democrats do on healthcare,” says Griffin. Trump’s lead over Biden “in the middle of an economic collapse, twelve years out from a different economic collapse under a different Republican president, shows just how deeply ingrained those preconceptions can be.”


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