Jonathan Bernstein in Bloomberg pushes back against the Politico piece yesterday that advances the view that fast economic comeback is in store and would hurt Joe Biden’s chance to cancel Donald Trump’s government employment….
Bernstein says that Democrats shouldn’t spend too much time worrying about things they can’t control…And Donald Trump tends to mess up….
Some Democrats are reportedly half-panicked by the possibility that the economy will rebound in the third quarter, and that Donald Trump will be able to capitalize on it in November. Given what we know about elections and the economy, should they be?
On the one hand, yes: Presidential approval, and therefore presidential re-election performance, is tied to events. We could expect it to take a hit given the current situation, and to improve if events improve. With an incumbent on the ballot, the election will mostly be a choice about keeping the president or throwing the bums out. It’s also true that voters have notoriously short memories. Political science research has found that the economy matters in elections, but only the election-year economy.
On the other hand, we also know that presidential approval tends to lag economic events. George H. W. Bush lost his re-election bid because of a recession that had already ended, and Democrats had terrible midterms in both 1994 and 2010 in part because the economy hadn’t fully recovered. Granted, the argument is that this recovery will likely produce extraordinary gains in the months leading up to the election, thanks to the even more extraordinary losses so far. But out-of-context numbers aren’t going to move voters; what will is whether they believe good times have returned. A partial bounce back, even a fast one, may not achieve that.
In the end, it’s unknowable: This situation is so different from a typical recession that we need to take all the normal economic models with a massive grain of salt. People might forgive the slump if they believe it was needed for public health — at least, if they believe that the president handled the public-health side well. If they think he botched it, that might make their perceptions of his economic performance even worse.
That’s not all. Some researchers believe that the economy doesn’t matter to election outcomes as much as it once did, thanks to the high degree of partisan polarization between the parties. That could explain the relatively minor shifts in Trump’s approval so far this year, which might mean that an economic rebound wouldn’t do much for him.
And then there’s Trump himself. The president has consistently been far less popular than the pretty good economy (before this year) might predict. But that, too, could change as an election approaches. We just don’t know.
At any rate: None of this is within the control of Joe Biden’s campaign. What it does suggest is that Trump should be doing whatever he can to control the pandemic and boost the economy. But he appears to be more interested in creating the illusion of fixing the problem, as Greg Sargent argues, while waiting for some miracle to solve everything. That doesn’t seem like a good way to maximize the effect Democrats are worried about….