We learned Friday that the unemployment rate is now at its lowest rate since 1969 at 3.6%. The economy added another 263,000 jobs. This capped a week in which President Donald Trump received his highest economic approval rating in any CNN poll at 56%.
In other words, the economy is going well, and people think it’s going well.
Yet for all that strength, Trump’s overall approval rating seems mostly stuck. Recently, he hasn’t been able to get his overall approval rating above 43% with voters. Trump’s net approval rating (approval - disapproval) hasn’t been positive in over two years.
So why is the President struggling, despite a strong economy?
1.The economy may not matter like it used to
One of the more interesting trends of the Trump presidency is how little changes in his economic approval rating have correlated with changes in his overall approval rating. That’s also seen in consumer sentiment. When consumer sentiment has been higher, it has not resulted in higher approval ratings for the President.
The funny thing is the same thing happened under President Barack Obama. According to political scientists John Sides, Michael Tesler and Lynn Vavreck, changes in consumer sentiment also failed to predict changes in Obama’s approval rating. In fact, if anything, Obama’s approval rating was lower when consumer sentiment was higher.
This is a complete reversal of the trend dating back to the John Kennedy administration. From Kennedy to George W. Bush, you could count on consumer sentiment changes to drive changes in overall approval ratings. Not surprisingly, therefore, the perceptions of a good economy lifted Ronald Reagan to re-election in 1984 and sunk George H.W. Bush in 1992.
Perhaps the trend will reverse itself over the next year and a half, but it may be the case that the economy just doesn’t matter that much anymore when it comes to approval ratings.
2. Voters don’t feel Trump is on their side
It’s one thing to think the economy is working. It’s another thing to believe the economy and the head of the government is working on behalf of you. Americans don’t believe that Trump cares about the average American. The percentage who do has hovered around 40%, which is right around where Trump’s approval rating has been. That’s about the same percentage of voters who believe the administration has done enough to help the middle class.
Indeed, changes in the percentage of Americans who think Trump cares about the average American have been correlated with changes in the his overall approval rating.
Instead, a majority of Americans think that the Trump administration has focused its efforts on helping wealthy Americans.
Not surprisingly, Quinnipiac University found 60% of Americans think the way broad economic statistics get reported on the news (like at the beginning of this article) are not reflective of the economic reality that the average American faces.
3. All the other stuff is keeping Trump down
The economy is just one thing that voters have to keep in mind when forming their opinions on Trump. You might recall Trump and the Republicans spent much of the middle part of 2017 trying to pass a repeal of Obamacare that was historically unpopular. Other issues include foreign policy, immigration, race relations, etc. Trump’s approval on the vast majority of issues that aren’t the economy is at best in the low 40s.
Polling from Gallup gets at the issue rather well. Right now, they find that only 13% of Americans say the most important problem in the country is related to the economy. In other words, it’s a political environment in which other, non-economic issues, dominate.
It could be argued too that the economy is the one thing actually holding up Trump’s approval rating. He is, after all, more popular than he was when he beat Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Think of it another way: if Trump’s approval rating was solely determined about how voters felt about him on health care, for example, he’d probably have an approval ratings in the 30s.
How does all of this matter for 2020?
It’s plausible that at some point something clicks in the voters’ minds and the good economic news lifts Trump to victory. How the economy does in the last few years of a first term matter most for predicting a president’s re-election chances.
But keep these two things in mind:
- Voters think the economy is good and have thought that for a while. Trump is still struggling, even though we’re well into year three of his presidency. If the economy hasn’t already translated for Trump, when will it?
- Overall approval ratings probably matter a lot more than economic approval ratings when it comes to a president’s re-election hopes. Remember, voters disapproved of Obama on the economy and thought Republican Mitt Romney would be better on it. It didn’t matter. Obama won.
Historically, once we take into account how voters feel about a president overall, it doesn’t matter what his economic approval rating is. A bad overall approval rating has meant very bad news for a president’s re-election hopes.