For years now, we’ve been told that elections are “about the economy, stupid”. President Donald Trump seems to believe that, as he’s been trying to make the midterm elections all about himself, his tax cut, and how his administration has supposedly unleashed animal spirits and increased prosperity. The question is whether voters are actually buying it.

I’d say no. Most Americans don’t believe the Trump tax cut has had any real effect on their personal finances. I spoke recently to Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg of Democracy Corps, whose latest numbers show that despite two particularly strong quarters of growth and unemployment as low as it’s been since 1969, only 39 per cent of voters say that “the economy is strong and families like mine are beginning to be more financially secure”. Even amongst white working class men, the Trump base, the percentage that would agree with the statement is less than half.

What’s happening? I think it’s the end of trickle down as a mythology. While past presidents could gain points by touting higher stock markets and job figures, Greenberg notes that since 2008, there’s been a growing awareness amongst the voting public that the economy can be getting “better” and still not be better for them. The two Americas narrative has finally taken root in the mass public consciousness. “Trump is facing what Obama faced in the off-year elections, when he talked all about jobs and the Democrats got slaughtered,” says Greenberg, who also notes that the former president’s message about poverty reduction fell flat in his DNC convention closing speech for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Indeed, polling shows that white male voters in the Rust Belt aren’t buying the Trump economic success story nearly as much as evangelicals, who are predisposed to protect this presidency no matter what. Greenberg says he’s seeing approval ratings of 36-38 per cent in places like Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio. The big question is whether the Christian right, which has been further galvanised by the appointment of pro-lifer Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, will offset weaker support in the industrial Midwest.

US President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting about cutting business regulations in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, October 17, 2018. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP)SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Either way, Democrats would be wise to pay attention to all this as they think about candidates and messaging in the 2020 presidential election. While a stronger economy would seem to indicate that liberals should focus on identity issues as a point of national grievance, that may well be a trap — things like the student debt crisis and spiralling healthcare costs that far outpace income growth are what are resonating most profoundly for many Democrats, according to Greenberg.

This creates an interesting dilemma for the party. In many ways, these trends would seem to favour someone like Elizabeth Warren, perhaps paired with a minority vice-presidential running mate, or in any case someone who can speak to the issues of race polarisation that will be key for many southern voters (perhaps Mitch Landrieu, the former mayor of New Orleans?). But Warren’s anti-corporate stance still worries many mainstream Democrats who feel that the party should play it safe with some pragmatic middle-of-the-road type, or even someone like Michael Bloomberg, who could position himself as a tough guy who can stand up to Trump and break up Washington gridlock.

Clearly, the perfect candidate doesn’t yet exist. But it will still be all about “the economy, stupid”. The choice will be about which one you live in. Ed, am I missing something? 

Recommended reading

  • This is an important and extremely well-reported piece by the New York Times’ Nicholas Confessore about the man who took on Silicon Valley and won. It sheds particular light on the market for third party data (the kind that Cambridge Analytica exploited) and makes a convincing case for how there really are simple and effective regulatory tools that we could use to make the internet safer and fairer.
  • Couldn’t agree more with this New York Times op-ed about why the Clintons shouldn’t be high visibility right now.
  • My colleague Roula Khalaf at the FT absolutely nailed the myth of the young Arab reformer.
  • And for more midterm coverage, check out the FT’s poll tracker and analysis of key races in the states of Minnesota, North Dakota, Texas and Florida

Edward Luce responds

Experience tells me to be wary of guessing who the next presidential nominee should be with two years to go. I’m even more reluctant to speculate what kind of identity would be preferable. I fear that gets it back to front. Democrats should aim for a high-quality candidate who can appeal to as many Americans as possible, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation and so on. There’s little evidence the identity of the candidate is what most rouses voters. Many more women voted for Obama than Hillary. Warren is wise to downplay her gender as her selling point. But I think she was unwise to all but declare her candidacy several weeks before the midterm elections. If the past few years have taught Democrats anything, it should be that other elections — congressional, gubernatorial, local — matter just as much, if not more, than the White House.

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