More Americans say the economy is in good shape than at any point since 2001. Yet President Donald Trump’s approval rating has remained steady over the last two years. An average of all polls shows his approval rating among voters is currently 43%. A year ago, it was 42%. Two years ago, it was was 45%.
The disconnect is rather stunning and leaves analysts like myself left wondering whether the strong economy will eventually help lift Trump. Others and I have written that economic forecast models suggest an economy in the shape America’s is in predict Trump’s re-election.
But these models have wide margins of error. They are guides, not soothsayers.
Other data points from throughout Trump’s and past administrations suggest the President cannot count on the economy to help his sagging ratings.
Perhaps the biggest reason to be suspect of the idea that the economy will help Trump is that it hasn’t so far. We’ve had low unemployment and strong economic growth throughout the Trump administration and yet his approval rating has averaged just 42% since he took office.
Now it would be one thing if voters weren’t taking into account the economy when they rate Trump, but they clearly are. Trump’s economic approval rating has consistently run ahead of his overall approval rating. In our latest CNN poll, for example, his economic approval rating was 52% among voters. That’s 9 points higher than his overall approval rating of 43% in the same survey.
Tellingly, swings in the President’s overall approval rating have not been well correlated with shifts in his economic approval rating. When you examine Quinnipiac University polls taken since the beginning of the Trump presidency, a swing upwards in his economic approval rating was no guarantee that his overall approval rating would also move in the same direction.
A clear problem for Trump is that there are other issues than just the economy. His ratings on stuff ranging from caring about the average American to foreign affairs to immigration to simple leadership skills are also important. They are all far lower than his ratings on the economy.
The President could potentially help himself if he could focus Americans on the economy. I’m not sure Trump can accomplish this feat. He seems more interested in spending his time on other matters – such as attacking former Sen. John McCain.
Obviously, there have been past presidents who have seen their approval ratings climb thanks to a strengthening economy. Presidents such as Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan and Harry Truman rode economic growth to higher approval ratings and ultimate victory. (Jimmy Carter had the opposite happen to him.)
Further, the economy may weaken going forward. The Federal Reserve is cutting its forecast for economic expansion in the coming year. That means Trump may have to count on the same economy or perhaps even a weaker one going forward to bring up his approval ratings up. The same economy that has left Trump with a 43% approval rating.
Most worrisome for Trump is that history suggests that overall approval ratings are far more telling of electoral success that economic approval ratings. Look at the seven elections in which the incumbent ran for re-election since 1976 (the first election for which we have economic approval ratings). The average difference between the net approval rating (approval - disapproval) rating of the president and the general election margin has been 7 points. When you examine the economic net approval ratings (in CBS News polls) compared to the general election margin, the difference has been a much higher 19 points.
The last two incumbents are particularly enlightening when it comes to whether you should bet on approval ratings or economic approval ratings. Both George W. Bush and Obama had overall approval ratings that were higher than their overall disapproval ratings. Both had economic approval ratings below their economic disapproval ratings. Bush and Obama were re-elected. In other words, their overall approval ratings predicted the winner. Their economic approval ratings failed to.
Of course, overall approval ratings don’t tell the complete picture, either. It will matter who the Democrats nominate. He’s in the ball game if they nominate someone unpopular like they did in 2016.
Indeed, a disliked Democratic opponent likely gives Trump a better chance to win than him hoping the economy lifts him.