Last week, the National Republican Congressional Committee released a web video entitled “Better Off Now.” According to NRCC communications director Matt Gorman, who was quoted in the accompanying press release, “November comes down to one question: Are Americans better off now than they were two years ago?” That might be what Republicans want, but it is not likely to be voters’ sole motivation as they cast their ballots.
According to Gorman, voters will “keep Republicans in the majority.” The economy certainly is good, and there is no reason to believe that will change before November.
Unemployment is down. Economic growth and consumer confidence are up. Even wages are starting to show some gains. But if the economy and the public’s satisfaction with it automatically translated into strong presidential approval numbers and gains for the president’s party, Donald Trump’s job approval would be well over 50 percent and House Republicans would be poised to gain seats.
That’s obviously not the case.
Republicans are going to lose House seats — likely two dozen or more — and Trump’s job approval sits in the 38 to 42 percent range, a reflection of his controversial presidency, style and character.
Although it is true that a bad economy is always fatal for the president’s party, a healthy economy doesn’t always translate into success for the party controlling the White House.
Plus, Trump’s agenda guarantees strong opposition from the left, which is now energized. More importantly, his style and behavior in office have cost him support among college-educated whites primarily because — rightly or wrongly — they see him as vulgar, untruthful, petty, mean-spirited, narcissistic and more interested in his own interests than in the country’s.
But there is another reason why the upbeat economic news isn’t boosting the president’s numbers: The public’s attention has turned elsewhere because most people are not nearly as worried about the economy as they once were.
If you think there is a touch of irony in this, you are correct.
The good economic numbers have allowed voters to turn their focus elsewhere, to issues that don’t benefit the Republicans as much as GOP strategists — and the NRCC — would like.
But don’t take my word for it.
Here is what the Pew Research Center concluded in January about the public’s priorities.
“The public’s improving economic outlook is reflected in its policy agenda for President Trump and Congress in the coming year. Economic issues — improving the job situation, strengthening the economy and reducing the budget deficit — are viewed as less important policy priorities than they were just a few years ago. “Other issues, which had been less prominent public priorities in the past, have grown in importance. The share of Americans saying that protecting the environment should be a top policy priority has increased 18 percentage points since 2010 (from 44% to 62%), and seven points in the past year alone.“Also in the past year, the shares saying that improving the nation’s transportation system and dealing with drug addiction should be top priorities have increased 13 points each (both from 36% to 49%).”
Proof in the polls
And there is more evidence. In the June NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted by Hart Research Associates and Public Opinion Strategies (Question No. 11) registered voters were given a handful of issues and asked to select two that they thought “will be the most important factor in deciding your vote.”
The most frequent response was “health care,” followed closely by “the economy and jobs,” “guns,” “taxes and spending” and “immigration.”
Two things stand out.
First, health care, not the economy, was the top response.
And second, no single response got even a quarter of all the responses as the top issue.
If the economy were poor, “the economy and jobs” would stand out dramatically as the top issue of concern. But because the economy is good, registered voters had a variety of concerns.
Finally, a third survey — this one at the district level — confirms the national numbers from Pew and NBC News/Wall Street Journal.
Take a Sept. 5-9 Monmouth University poll of Pennsylvania’s 7th District, a competitive, redrawn Lehigh Valley (Allentown) seat.
The top issue of the 401 voters questioned? Health care (30 percent), followed by immigration (21 percent). Job creation came in third (14 percent), followed by a resurgent “gun control” (13 percent).
Their best shot
Republicans from the White House to the Capitol can and should run on the economy since it is the best issue they have.
Voters who like the president can and will cite jobs, economic growth and the economy to explain their vote. But a majority of midterm voters are likely to view the election as about other things, from guns and health care to the president’s deep character flaws.
James Carville was correct in 1992 when he argued that Democrats should focus on “the economy, stupid.”
The United States had just passed through a short-lived but significant recession in 1990-91, and voters were worried about rising unemployment and weak economic growth. But that’s not the case today.
It is now apparent that Trump and the GOP will be punished in November in spite of the generally good economy, which is why I suggest modifying Carville’s comment to “It’s the economy, stupid — except when it isn’t.”
And it isn’t this year, because the economy is not a problem, which gives a majority of Americans the freedom to have other things on their minds. And many of those things have to do with Trump’s personal behavior, performance in office and broader agenda.
This column originally appeared in Roll Call on September 18, 2018.