President Trump could be in trouble. A lot could still change between now and November, but historically, the strength of the economy is correlated with the electoral strength of the incumbent president, and right now, the economy doesn’t look especially good.
Between mid-March and the end of May, more than 38 million Americans applied for unemployment insurance. And even though the job market has shown some signs of improvement, many Americans are still out of work, and in June more of the people who lost their jobs were laid off permanently. And if the economic recovery progresses slowly — or halts and starts backsliding — it’s likely to drag down Trump’s reelection chances. At the very least, the downturn takes away what had been perhaps his strongest re-election argument.
Even in more normal election years, many voters still worry about the economy. The American National Election Studies, which has tracked public opinion since 1948, has for many years now asked voters what they think is the most important problem facing the country. And in the last three presidential election cycles, Americans have named the economy as their top concern, making it the most frequently cited issue. In 2008 (the last time we had a presidential election amid an economic crisis), 42 percent of Americans said the economy was the most important political problem. Since then, the share citing the economy as their top issue has dropped — it was 32 percent in 2012 and just 11 percent in 2016.
So far in 2020, polls show that anywhere from 1 in 5 to 1 in 3 voters rate the economy as their top concern. But let’s return to 2020 in a moment. So what do we know about these voters?
To be clear, everyone is an economic voter to some extent, according to Michael Lewis-Beck, a professor of political science at the University of Iowa who studies economic voting and comparative politics. His research has found that the economy frequently ranks as the country’s most important problem unless there’s a big war going on. “It’s always at or near the top of the average voter’s agenda,” Lewis-Beck told me. Many voters factor the state of the national economy into their vote even if it’s not the most important issue to them.
But that doesn’t mean all voters prioritize the economy equally. In fact, according to our analysis of ANES data, there are two key traits that tend to correspond with being an economy-minded voter: higher income or a college education. These voters are also more likely to identify as Republican than as Democratic and are more likely to be white or Hispanic than Black.1
First up, as the table below shows, those with household incomes of $100,000 or more have consistently said the economy is the most important problem facing the country at higher rates than those in households making less. In 2008, for instance, only 36 percent of households making less than $50,000 said the economy was the top problem, whereas 51 percent of households making $100,000 or more said the same. In 2016, when all groups were less likely to say the economy was their top concern, that pattern wasn’t as stark, but it was still there.
|$50,000 to $99,999||47.0||35.9||11.3|
|Less than $50k||35.9||27.7||9.7|
Next, education. These differences are less pronounced than differences by income level — education levels produce at most an 11-point gap in the last three presidential election cycles. But as you can see in the table below, those with at least a bachelor’s degree or some college education have consistently been more likely to name the economy as their top concern than those with a high school diploma or less. The gap here also narrowed quite a bit in 2016.
|Level of education||2008||2012||2016|
|At least a bachelor’s degree||47.3%||37.2%||12.5%|
|Some college or an associate’s degree||44.0||31.3||11.7|
|High school graduate or less||36.6||28.0||9.1|
And though the pattern here is a little less consistent here than with either income or education, race and ethnicity also reveal something about which voters care most about the economy. White and Hispanic voters are consistently more likely to put the economy at the top of their list than Black voters. And in 2016, a slightly higher percentage of Hispanic voters than white voters said the economy was their No. 1 issue. Lewis-Beck has found similar trends in his own research, too, describing Hispanics as close to being single-issue voters on the economy.
There are also meaningful differences between Democrats and Republicans. Larger shares of Republicans than Democrats have rated the economy as the most important issue facing the U.S., although as you can see in the table below, partisan differences were never huge and were much less pronounced in 2012.2
Ultimately, what we know is this: The group of voters who prioritize the economy tends to skew wealthier and more educated — and, often, white or Hispanic and Republican. But the group’s exact size and makeup changes from election to election. For instance, in 2016, just 11 percent of voters said the economy was the most important issue, and that small group overwhelmingly broke for Trump — 60 percent backed him, while only 32 percent backed Hillary Clinton. Whereas in 2008 and 2012, more voters thought the economy was the most pressing issue (42 percent and 32 percent, respectively), but they broke for the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama — 51 percent to 46 percent in 2008 and 51 percent to 47 percent in 2012.
So what do we know about these economy-minded voters and which way they may be leaning in 2020?
First, it’s hard to know exactly how many voters think the economy is the top issue this year, as we don’t have a ton of recent polls. But in three polls from June that asked people about the most important issue affecting their vote, we know that: (i) roughly a quarter of Americans are are naming the economy as the top issue, and (ii) Trump still has an advantage with these voters, leading Joe Biden by varying degrees:
- In a Reuters/Ipsos poll, 20 percent of voters chose the economy as the most important problem facing the country, and these voters narrowly backed Trump, 44 percent to 41 percent.3
- An Economist/YouGov poll found 22 percent of voters rated “the economy and jobs” as the most important issue to them, but this survey had Trump with a 44-point lead over Biden (70 percent to 26 percent) with this group.4
- And in an Axios/SurveyMonkey poll, Trump had a 27-point lead over Biden (56 percent to 29 percent) among the 33 percent of adults who said that jobs and the economy mattered most to them. More respondents named the economy than any other issue.5
Trump’s advantage with this group of voters makes sense, as polls show they are more likely to be white, higher income and Republican-leaning (just as the ANES survey found in past years); they’re also far more likely to have voted for Trump in 2016, at least according to the SurveyMonkey poll. “Fully 50% of Trump voters single out jobs and the economy as the most critical set of issues right now, more than double the proportion of Biden voters so focused on these concerns,” the pollster wrote of its results. “For Trump voters, no other issue reaches into double-digits.”
But it’s not clear how much this advantage among economy-minded voters actually helps Trump. That’s because these voters are already likely to be a part of Trump’s base, according to Alan Abramowitz, a professor of political science at Emory University. “Voters who prioritize the economy tend to be Republicans, so they’re already inclined to support the president,” said Abramowitz.
The economy might also be a less powerful influence on people’s vote choice now than it has been in the past due to increased partisanship and the fact that opinions of Trump are pretty baked in at this point, so the state of the economy might not change many minds. All of which means that who you’re supporting may say more about whether you rate the economy as your top concern rather than the other way around.
Abramowitz was also skeptical that this “economy-minded” group of voters will expand into a broader coalition because some voters will consider other issues — like the pandemic — more pressing than the economy this year. Voters’ concern about this issue may already be reflected in the fact that health care was either the first or second most popular choice in all three of these recent polls.
As we are already seeing, current events may increase the salience of issues that weren’t on as many voters’ radar in past elections, such as racism and police brutality. As Ipsos wrote about their findings, “Similar to the first two weeks in June, the percentage of respondents who say ‘other’ remains higher than average at 17%. When asked to specify, racism, police brutality, partisanship and the current administration are common themes being reported.”
In fact, Abramowitz told me, he thinks there’s a chance that Trump could even lose some ground among economy-minded voters. For instance, voters already disinclined to support Trump likely didn’t need an economic downturn to sour on the president — the economy was just one of many factors that shaped their opinion. Take Trump’s overall job approval rating: It continues to hover in the low 40s, and his deficit against Biden in national polls is bigger than ever. So if the coronavirus pandemic worsens — cases and deaths are rising in some places right now — it’s possible that this will hurt Trump’s perceived handling of the crisis and drive away some economy-minded voters who were open to voting for him.
Bottom line: It’s not clear what role the economy might play in 2020. In the last three presidential elections, the economy has been the most commonly named top issue for voters (although the share of voters saying its the country’s biggest problem has changed from cycle to cycle). Historically, white voters and voters with higher incomes or more education have been more likely to rank the economy higher than any other issue.
But there’s no reason to think the size and makeup of the economy-minded voters group will look like it has in recent general elections. College-educated white voters have moved dramatically toward Democrats in recent years, and many Americans disapproved of Trump even when the economy was booming. Which means that while this group looks a lot like Trump’s base right now, that could be because non-Trump voters are prioritizing other issues, rather than because Trump is gaining supporters among people who are focused on the economy. So it’s still possible that Trump wins these voters but loses the general election. The questions now are: If economic conditions are still bad come November, how much does that actually hurt Trump? And, of course, how many voters will prioritize the economy over other issues, like police brutality and systemic racism, the COVID-19 pandemic or other major issues?