How bad would a recession be for Trump in 2020? 8 experts weigh in. –

How bad would a recession be for Trump in 2020? 8 experts weigh in. –

The state of the economy is, historically, one of the main things voters consider when deciding whether to grant a president a second term. So if the US were to enter a recession — as some have speculated it soon might — this prompts a question for 2020: Would it affect President Donald Trump’s reelection chances?

As Vox’s Emily Stewart reports, there are still a lot of unknowns regarding if and when a recession will take place, but several indicators, including a rocky stock market, a briefly inverted yield curve, and fallout from a trade war with China, have economic watchers worrying a slowdown could be on the horizon.

Among the questions this dynamic has raised is the impact a recession could have on Trump, particularly when it comes to moderate voters who approve of his administration’s economic performance but disapprove of his racist policies and rhetoric. As conventional wisdom suggests, a waning economy typically hurts the elected officials who are in power, and that could certainly be the case with him.

Political experts caution, however, that there are other variables at play that might help diffuse this impact. For one, the degree of polarization in the electorate could mean that partisanship outweighs concerns about the economy for some voters. For another, Trump’s own messaging could play a role in shifting the focus from a contracting economy to other flash points that continue to rally his supporters.

“Due to intense levels of polarization in the electorate, a recession is not likely to take Trump’s already abysmal reelection numbers much further down, although I would expect some modest erosion,” Rachel Bitecofer, assistant director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, told Vox.

Vox spoke with seven other experts who agreed that a recession doesn’t bode well for Trump’s reelection. Whether it would be a fatal blow for his candidacy, however, is still an open question.

Given how central messaging about the economy has been to Trump’s presidency, a slowdown is expected to hurt him in 2020

Darren Davis, political science professor, University of Notre Dame

An economic recession could have a tremendous effect on President Trump’s reelection in 2020. First, economic indicators, such as unemployment, inflation, and the stock market, have always signaled to individual voters how well the president is doing his job. The national economy is important because it affects people’s way of life, and while presidents do not singularly control the economy, the perception is that they do.

Second, a recession could be a problem for President Trump in 2020 because his handling of the economy is viewed as his strength by his supporters. President Trump campaigned on qualities as a business leader in 2016, and voters expected this to translate into an improved economy. Voters’ expectations for the national economy may explain why President Trump is given a pass on other issues and his behavior. That is, voters are willing to tolerate his behavior if the economy is doing well, but if there is a recession, voters will look differently on his behavior and performance in other areas.

Last, President Trump’s rating for handling the economy is at 56 percent, which is the highest of his approval ratings of domestic and foreign issues according to a February 2019 Gallup Poll. This is the issue on which people have high expectations and an area where they think he is capable. This means that voters are indeed paying attention. The economy is doing well and voters have rewarded him, though other issues are dragging down his overall approval. So a recession would erode support among his base supporters.

There is no comparable issue to the performance of the national economy. President Trump campaigned on several issues, but none are as important as the economy.

Mark Zandi, chief economist, Moody’s Analytics

A recession between now and the 2020 election would likely put a dagger in the heart of President Trump’s reelection chances. The president has argued that the currently low unemployment and high stock prices are the product of his economic policies. If unemployment rises and stock prices fall, as they would in a recession, it is hard to see how he won’t own these failures in the minds of voters.

Not that he won’t try to pin the economy’s problems on others, most notably the Federal Reserve and the conduct of monetary policy, but I doubt most voters will be duped.

Ioana Marinescu, public policy professor, University of Pennsylvania

Research shows that stronger economic growth increases the chances that an incumbent president wins the election. These macroeconomic conditions matter more than a voter’s own perception of their personal economic situation. From this perspective, we expect a recession to lower President Trump’s chances of reelection.

Robert Erikson, political science professor, Columbia University

Presidential popularity is strongly governed by the economy, as we all know, although other factors have kept Trump’s approval down. The index of consumer sentiment is a strong leading indicator for the president’s approval level.

And of the components of consumer sentiment, expectations about the future economy dominate perceptions of the recent economic past. Voters are forward-looking when evaluating the president on the economy. And collectively, voter expectations do predict the near-term economic future fairly well. So the recent mild dive in consumer expectations is not a good sign for Trump.

There are some caveats, though

Rachel Bitecofer, assistant director of the Wason Center for Public Policy, Christopher Newport University

Due to intense levels of polarization in the electorate, a recession is not likely to take Trump’s already abysmal reelection numbers much further down, although I would expect some modest erosion.

But the days of an impact like Jimmy Carter saw, or even George W. Bush late in his presidency, are probably behind us for now. Keep in mind, Trump controls his own information environment, and it’s not only base Republicans who see it (Fox News). And he is already setting up a frame to blame the media and Wall Street “elites” out to get him for blame for a recession if one occurs.

Sean Freeder, political science PhD candidate, UC Berkeley

Trump’s approval ratings have been consistently lower than the strength of the economy would predict, and there’s two ways to interpret that.

One is that voters are still giving him credit for a strong economy, but that his performance in other areas (e.g., his rhetoric) is poor enough to keep many of them from granting overall positive approval to him. If that’s true, it may be that the strong economy is the only thing keeping his approval ratings above 40 percent, and in such a case, a pre-election recession would all but doom his chances of reelection.

The other is that the economy has less of an impact on presidential voting right now than in the past. My work suggests this may be true — as the parties have become increasingly polarized over the past several decades, people have become more likely to excuse apparent poor performance by their side, or minimize the apparent successes of the other party.

If this is true, Trump may not be enjoying the fruits of a strong economy, but he’d also be unusually resilient to a pre-election recession, as the roughly 90 percent of the electorate who have a partisan preference will have likely already made up their minds who they are voting for, regardless of the state of the economy. Just as Democrats have waved away the strength of the economy under Trump as having resulted from Obama administration policies, Republicans will wave away any future weakness in the economy as bad luck, or due to insufficient cooperation from Democrats in Congress, and so on.

Overall, I’d wager that a recession would lower his approval ratings, and thereby his vote totals, but less so than we may have expected in previous decades. Still, a drop from his consistent aggregate approval average of 41 percent to even, say, 36 percent would make his reelection very, very difficult.

An economic slowdown closer to the election would have the most potential impact on the 2020 race

Laura Stoker, political science professor, UC Berkeley

Voter support does ebb and flow in response to the strength of the economy, but voters are myopic; what will matter next November is the strength of economy then and in the preceding months of 2020.

Lynn Vavreck, political science professor, UCLA

To the extent that a recession will lead to a drop in GDP in the first two quarters of the election year, I’d guess it could hurt his chances for reelection.

Declining growth rate — for whatever reasons — usually signals vote loss for the incumbent party. It’s a robust relationship in the post-New Deal era. The time to watch is the first six months of 2020. If growth is less than 1 percent, the president should worry.

Of course, I would add that he can overcome the effects of declining growth by running a campaign that highlights something else — something voters can be made to find more important than the economy. If you think about it, you’ll see that Trump may already be setting the stage for this campaign — Keep America Great and such. Identity-inflected issues and themes could distract people from the economy.

Sean Freeder, political science PhD candidate, UC Berkeley

I should also mention that voters tend to reward presidents only for the state of the economy just prior to the election, so if there is a recession, to the extent economic voting is still happening, the strength of the 2017-2019 economy will be forgotten by voters, and their judgments will be fixed on the near term.

Voter reactions to tariffs could offer a glimpse of how people will respond to a recession

Rachel Bitecofer, assistant director of the Wason Center for Public Policy, Christopher Newport University

[Trump’s] ability to control Congress during his first two years in office, and with it the ability to extract multibillion-dollar bailouts for farmers directly impacted by his trade war, helped Trump maintain the support of most farmers despite an economic policy that has had devastating impacts on agriculture. But what is really helping Trump maintain his edge among this demographic is partisanship.

The economic pain will have to get a lot more severe before most farmers put partisanship aside, even when their economic interests are at stake. Voters will evaluate this recession via a partisan lens, and right-leaning Republicans are not likely to desert Trump over it.

Mark Zandi, chief economist, Moody’s Analytics

Staunch Trump voters that derive their livelihood from these industries have yet to reject the president and his policies, and the $16 billion in farm aid to offset the ill effects of the trade war has delayed any reaction, but that won’t continue for long if conditions continue to deteriorate, as they surely would in a broad-based recession.

Business executives may be a good leading barometer of how Trump voters will respond if the economy weakens further. After the 2016 election, business sentiment improved as executives bought into the president’s pro-business and anti-regulation rhetoric. Investment picked up. But the president’s trade war has since spooked businesses, and business confidence, investment, and even hiring have suffered. It is hard to imagine as many businesspeople voting again for him for president if there is a “Trump slump,” although that will probably depend in part on who the Democrats chose as their presidential nominee.

Ioana Marinescu, public policy professor, University of Pennsylvania

The impact of trade policy is complicated. On the one hand, research shows that American consumers and firms suffered higher prices as a result of the 2018 tariffs. Higher prices resulting from increased tariffs on Chinese goods in December will make people unhappy, and this can directly hurt Trump’s popularity. Furthermore, higher prices may lower consumer & business morale and help trigger a recession, which would further hurt Trump’s reelection chances.

On the other hand, the employment losses resulting from Chinese imports disproportionately increased support for Trump in the most affected regions. Therefore, imposing tariffs on Chinese goods may increase Trump’s support among this constituency of trade-impacted workers. The net result of the tariffs depends on how the upset over price increases will play out against the cheers from the anti-trade Trump supporters.

Sean Freeder, political science PhD candidate, UC Berkeley

As for tariffs, the few polls that track it indicate the public is roughly evenly divided, and along party lines, with Trump voters at least weakly supportive of their use. It’s a mistake, though, to think that voters walk around with fixed opinions on tariffs — most have no idea what they do and look to their party and the media for cues as to how to feel about them.

If Elizabeth Warren somehow became the face of tariffs, for instance, Democrats would begin to approve of tariffs, and Republicans disapprove. To the extent tariffs matter, it will be due to their actual effect on the economy, which is why the Trump administration pulled back recently when it appeared new tariffs would be timed poorly against the holiday season.


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