The February jobs report released Friday showed strong job growth, especially among blue collar and white collar industries.
The report was good news for President Donald Trump. But will that good news help him and his party in the midterm elections?
Well, I’ve got bad news: Job growth hasn’t historically been correlated with midterm performance.
If you look at the president’s party’s standing on the generic congressional ballot now and the percent change in jobs from now until the midterm election, you’d see that in no way does job growth explain changes on the generic congressional ballot.
To use one recent example, look back to the 1994 midterm elections. There was actually pretty strong job growth at 2.4% from this point in that midterm cycle and the election. That’s above the post-World War II average of 1.7%, which is also the growth the 2018 economy would have if it added 313,000 new jobs from now until the election.
What happened in 1994? Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party went from a 5-point advantage on the generic ballot to losing the House popular vote by 7 points, losing a net of 54 House seats and control of the House in the process.
You can also look at the midterm election before that in 1990. The country in 1990 actually lost jobs from this point through the midterm election. George H.W. Bush’s Republican Party’s 6-point deficit on the generic ballot stayed static despite that loss of jobs. His party lost the House popular vote by 8 points and had a net seat loss of just 8 seats – far better for the president’s party than the average since World War II.
You could also just ignore the generic ballot overall and just look at how job growth predicts the midterm elections. If you calculate the percent change in jobs from the January after the presidential election to the midterms, there is no correlation with seat loss. The same holds true if you examine job growth from now until the election.
Arguably the best way to know that the economy isn’t likely to save Republicans is that it’s not doing so already. The economy has gained an average of 191,000 new jobs per month since Trump became president. Yet, Trump is the most unpopular president at this point in his presidency and the Republican Party is in a historically bad position on the generic congressional ballot.
That’s not to say the economy is hurting Trump. It’s almost certainly the opposite. In the most recent Quinnipiac University poll, for example, his net approval rating (approval rating - disapproval rating) on the economy was a -3 percentage points compared to a -18 percentage point overall net approval rating. In other words, Trump is doing better in his economic rating than he is overall.
It is quite unusual for a president to have a better economic rating at this point in a term than an overall rating. In fact, there’s only one recent president who was doing this much better on his economic rating this overall job approval rating: Bill Clinton in 1998 during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
The problem for Trump and the Republicans is that the economy is already baked into the electoral cake. Voters don’t like Trump because of other issues such as Trump’s character. That so far has been more than enough for Democrats to gain the upper hand heading into the midterms, and history suggests that there is no reason to believe it won’t continue to be enough for the months to come.