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This number explains why the Biden-Trump rematch is so tight

In World
February 03, 2024

Want to know why the election rematch between President Biden and former President Trump starts out so close? One number goes a long way toward an answer.

The number is 57%: That’s the share of Americans who rated the economy as good or excellent in January 2020 — just before the COVID-19 pandemic blew things up. That number, from polling by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, reflects a key fact that shapes today’s campaign: A majority of Americans look back at Trump’s presidency and remember an economy that worked well for them.

And today? In Pew’s most recent poll, just 28% rate the economy as good or excellent. That was actually a big improvement from last spring, but it’s still a far cry from how people felt four years ago.

Some people look at the rock-solid support that Trump gets from his most committed backers and despair that he hasn’t paid a price for his chaotic response to COVID-19, the multiple criminal charges he faces, the jury findings of sexual assault and defamation against him and his backing of the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.

The economic numbers provide evidence for the opposite view: Trump has paid a price. If he were a normal candidate, he likely would have a sustained lead against an incumbent who has struggled with high inflation, low approval ratings and concerns about his age. The fact that the two start off neck and neck measures how much Trump’s character and behavior weigh him down.

Improving views of the economy

Voter concerns over Trump’s fitness for office won’t go away. If anything, the spotlight on his legal problems likely will intensify between now and election day, especially if any of the four criminal cases against him goes to trial. Polls vary on how much impact a criminal conviction would have on Trump’s support, but there’s little doubt it would cause some ambivalent voters to turn against him.

By contrast, the economic burden Biden carries has started to lighten.

Before going further, there is a crucial caveat to keep in mind: We live in an era of hyper-partisanship. As the political analyst Lee Drutman recently wrote, the U.S. has a 40-20-40 electorate: 40% are firmly entrenched on each side, and the remaining 20% are mostly low-information voters who don’t pay much attention to news and only sometimes vote.

There’s almost nothing that Trump or Biden could do to change the minds of the 40% on the other side. As for the remaining 20%, how they feel about their economic circumstances does matter. It’s not the only thing, but it’s a big thing.

Since late last year, perceptions of the economy have started to improve.

The consumer confidence index released Tuesday by the Conference Board, a business organization, provides the latest evidence. The index has now increased for the third month in a row and stands at its highest point since December 2021.

Americans’ expectations about the future remain guarded, the Conference Board numbers show, but their ratings of current conditions are much higher and have returned most of the way to the pre-pandemic high point.

“January’s increase in consumer confidence likely reflected slower inflation, anticipation of lower interest rates ahead, and generally favorable employment conditions,” Dana Peterson, chief economist at the Conference Board, said in a statement accompanying the new numbers. “Consumers are starting off the year in good spirits about their current finances,” she said.

Gallup found a similar trend. Its economic confidence index is at the highest point in two years, although still below the pre-pandemic level.

The political impact

The White House was quick to highlight the improving trend.

“In recent weeks, we’re starting to see real evidence that American consumers are beginning to feel confidence — renewed confidence in the economy we’re building,” Biden said at a fundraiser in Florida after the Conference Board data came out.

He accused Trump of rooting for an economic downturn, noting a remark the former president made in a recent interview with a conservative website in which he said that “when there’s a crash, I hope it’s going to be during this next 12 months,” on Biden’s watch.

“Donald Trump knows the economy we’ve built is strong and getting stronger. And he knows that, while it’s good for America, it’s bad for him politically,” Biden said.

In theory, that should be true: Warming economic sentiment should boost Biden.

Some polls have started to show a boost. A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday, for example, showed Biden opening up a small lead over Trump, 50%-44% nationwide, in a hypothetical matchup. In December, Quinnipiac’s poll had the two essentially tied. Voter ratings of Biden’s handling of the economy remain negative, but by a smaller margin than before, the poll found.

Quinnipiac’s surveys have tended to be a bit more favorable to Biden than average, and other recent surveys have shown less of an uptick for the president.

A new Emerson College poll, for example, showed a small improvement in how voters judge Biden’s performance on the economy, but not much movement in the race between the two, which it found to be neck and neck. A CNN poll released Thursday showed Trump with a small lead, 49% to 45%, unchanged from this fall.

Young Americans still worried

One reason improved economic news hasn’t given Biden more of a payoff is that some important Democratic constituencies aren’t fully feeling it.

That’s especially true of younger Americans.

Among Democrats in their 20s, for example, just 1 in 4 view the economy positively, Pew’s survey found. The share who have a positive view was about 1 in 3 among Democrats in their 30s and 40s, more than half among those 50 to 64, and 70% among those 65 and older, the poll found.

Republicans across the board tend to see the economy negatively, reflecting the impact that partisanship has on economic perceptions.

The reasons why younger Americans might have a more negative view aren’t hard to comprehend: Younger people tend to have lower incomes because they’re just starting in their careers, and lower-income households feel a more acute pinch from higher prices. Younger people also tend to have fewer savings and less job security, making more susceptible to economic problems. Those who are parents face high costs for child care.

Moreover, the higher interest rates that the Federal Reserve has used to bring down inflation have an especially harsh impact on younger people because they make buying a home much harder.

If the Fed cuts interest rates later this year, as it is widely expected to do, some of that economic pain could recede.

That will be important for Biden, who would greatly benefit from a strong turnout among Democratic-leaning young voters.

Republicans shift focus to immigration

The most telling sign that the economy isn’t hurting Biden as much as before is that Republicans aren’t talking about it as much.

Among Republican voters, the economy no longer ranks as the top issue of concern. In its place, immigration and the border have risen to the top, recent surveys show.

For Republicans, the border is a perennial issue: Trump notoriously kicked off his first presidential campaign with an attack on migrants from Mexico: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Right now, immigration concerns cut strongly in the GOP’s direction: Voters in major swing states say they trust Republicans more than Democrats to handle problems at the border, and the party is doing everything it can to keep the issue in the forefront. That’s the political impetus behind House Republicans’ effort to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas.

But immigration is a much more polarizing issue than the economy — almost no one favors high inflation, after all, but many Americans do favor immigration. During Trump’s presidency, voters recoiled against his harsh policies toward unauthorized migrants, especially the separation of children from their families. Democrats hope that Republican unwillingness to compromise on border legislation will rebound to their advantage.

The state of the economy may never be a plus for Biden — he’s not likely to be remaking “Morning in America” ads — but if improving sentiment shifts the issue from a major liability to something close to neutral, Democrats will have accomplished a major goal.

Get the best of the Los Angeles Times’ politics coverage with the Essential Politics newsletter.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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