Strong Economy Could Bolster Trump Heading Into 2020

If the economy remains strong, then Democrats could find it harder to beat the President than they thought.

While the President continues to be beleaguered by the Mueller Report and other issues, The Hill notes that for the moment at least his political fortunes are being bolstered by a strong economy that seems, at least for the moment, to be on course for continued economic growth:

A raft of surprisingly strong recent economic data is likely to bolster President Trump’s case as he heads into the 2020 election.

The U.S. labor market blew past expectations by adding 263,000 jobs in April, with the unemployment rate falling to the lowest level in 50 years, and gross domestic product growth accelerated at a 3.2 percent annual rate in the first quarter.

Financial markets have rebounded to record highs after a bloody end to 2018, while wage growth is slowly increasing after years of near stagnation.

Economists had widely expected the U.S. economy to slow this year, with some raising the specter of a potential recession. But those fears have fallen by the wayside, and the strong top-line numbers give Democrats few openings to attack Trump on the state of the economy.

“Markets were wrong about the risks of a recession at the turn of the year. The economy still has significant momentum,” wrote Diane Swonk, chief economist at Grant Thornton, in a Friday research note.

That’s left Democrats looking to unseat Trump instead focusing on the president’s push to roll back regulations, which they argue has left workers with fewer protections, and on wide swaths of the country still struggling to get by.

“Regardless of the economic numbers, most people feel like they’re working harder but not getting ahead,” wrote Zac McCrary, partner at progressive polling firm ALG Research, in a Friday email.

“People don’t vote based on macro-economic metrics – they vote based on what’s happening in their own lives.”

The economy will take center stage in 2020. Trump and congressional Republicans have claimed credit for boosting the economy through massive tax cuts and sweeping deregulation.

When Trump took office in January 2017, he inherited a solid but slowly growing economy from former President Obama. The unemployment rate was 4.7 percent, but GDP grew only 1.6 percent in 2016, the slowest level of economic growth since 2011.

The economy has kicked into another gear since Trump’s election, with unemployment sinking to 3.6 percent in April and GDP growth coming close to 3 percent in 2018.

Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have toured the country to tout the strong economy, frequently in midwestern states that voted for Obama in 2012 but delivered the White House to Republicans in 2016.


“We can all agree that AMERICA is now #1,” Trump said in a Friday tweet, accompanied by a picture of the Drudge Report homepage touting the April hiring boom. “We are the ENVY of the WORLD — and the best is yet to come!

Democrats, though, argue Obama should get credit for the burst of prosperity. They say the U.S. is finally reaping the full benefits of his efforts to rebuild the economy. Economic analysts say the stimulatory effects of GOP tax cuts and the sharp increase in government spending are likely short-lived.

Even so, Republicans believe the recent spurt of economic growth stands to benefit Trump as he seeks re-election. Polls find Trump broadly unpopular, but they also show the public giving him high marks for his handling of the economy.

Roughly 53 percent of Americans disapprove of Trump’s presidency, according to a FiveThirtyEight average of approval polls updated on Friday. But 56 percent of respondents to a CNN poll said they approved of Trump’s economic record, a new high for his presidency.

“‘It’s the economy stupid’ is still mostly operative,” Stuart Roy, a GOP strategist and former aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), wrote in an email, citing the unofficial slogan of former President Clinton’s first White House campaign in 1992.

The relatively strong state of the economy can be seen most recently in the Gross Domestic Product numbers released at the end of April and the jobs report released last Friday. Both numbers were higher than expectations that analysts had prior to their release, and both seemed to put to rest the fears that many had of an economic slump later in 2019 or heading into 2020. While such an outcome is certainly possible, and the current economic expansion that began in the summer of 2009 must and will come to an end at some point, there don’t appear to be any storm clouds on the horizon indicating an immediate economic downturn that would have a negative impact on the President’political fortunes.

The extent to which the economy is likely helping the President can be seen in his own poll numbers. While Trump’s job approval number continue to be historically low, they remain within the same range that we’ve seen going back to the beginning of his Administration. Part of the reason for this, of course, is due to the overwhelming support he gets from Republicans as opposed to Democrats and Independents. However, it must also be acknowledged that his job approval numbers on the economy alone are much better than his overall numbers. In the RealClearPolitics average, for example, the President’s overall job approval stands at 44% approve and 53% disapprove for a deficit of nine points. On the specific issue of the economy, though, his numbers are nearly the exact opposite, with an average 54% approving of his handling of the economy and 41% disapproving.

As I’ve noted before, exit polling after most recent Presidential elections has shown that the single most important factor that voters cited as the reason for the way they voted is the state of the economy in general and of the voter’s personal financial condition. While broad economic statistics are not always a perfect measure of how people feel about their personal financial situation, they are generally speaking a good indication of such and it’s typically the case that when there’s good news on the economy generally workers and consumers feel better about their own economic condition.

All of this has a predictable impact on politics, especially at the Presidential level. In times of economic growth, it is hard for an incumbent or a candidate from the incumbent’s party to be defeated. We saw this is the elections of 1984, 1988, 1996, 2004, and 2012. By contrast, incumbents are more likely to lose if the state of the economy was poor, as we saw in 1976, 1980, and 1992. If the current growing economy continues into 2020, it could end up making the difference between a second Trump term and a Democrat taking the Presidency and it could prove difficult for Democrats to nitpick otherwise strong economic statistics in an effort to “talk down” the economy.. If it doesn’t then Trump is likely to have a difficult time selling the public on re-election.

FILED UNDER: 2020 Election, Economics and Business, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Guarneri says:

    Well, they could always try the same stuff they used in 2016. You know, say, collusion with a foreign country. Does Biden know any out of work MI6 agents? Misfud could probably use a new gig.

    “The Ukrainian Embassy in Washington, D.C., now acknowledges DNC contractor Alexandra Chalupa asked the Ukrainian government for dirt on Trump and for information about his one-time campaign manager Paul Manafort’s dealings with Russia’s neighboring country, John Solomon reports at The Hill newspaper.”

  2. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    I’m tired of hearing about this strong economy that Dennison inherited from Obama.
    It’s basically a 9-year trend…except for the massive explosion in the deficit.
    And wage growth still sucks…in spite of the inevitable tightening job market…because trickle down doesn’t ever work. And price increases are wiping out whatever gains are made.
    If I were a Democrat running for POTUS I would be asking everyday Americans if they are any better off?

  3. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Another red-hatted loon sighting.

  4. Teve says:

    I remember in 1991 there was some news about George HW Bush’s reelection strategy, and Arsenio Hall joking “yeah, it’s called ‘just show up’.”

  5. Kathy says:


    Yes, but back then Bush the elder had just won a great military victory, in a war seemed to be made for prime time TV, and the economy was still chugging along. It took a relatively mild recession and a serious primary challenge, and Ross Perot, for him to lose.

    And as @Daryl and his brother Darryl says, it would help the Democratic candidate to steal Reagan’s line and ask “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”

    A mild recession is possible within the next two years, and quite likely if Dennison goes full-Trump with tariffs and manages to push up the price of oil.

  6. Teve says:

    According to Morning Consult tracking of Trump’s approval or disapproval in states, Trump’s significantly underwater in several key states.

    Wisconsin -19
    Michigan -18
    Pennsylvania -17
    Iowa -17

    Combined with 2018’s record turnout, and another 18 months of ambulances arriving at the assisted living facilities to give Trump’s voters their penultimate car rides, I’d say we’re less than 19 months away from starting the national repair job.

  7. Raoul says:

    The economy is doing about what is expected with annual billion dollar deficits (basically the Obama era economy with added stimulus); however, a vast majority of working Americans are not seen much of a benefit. I have noticed that when the economy is growing it tends to drift as a politically issue, meaning it only helps the incumbent in a marginal manner. I am curious though how an incumbent is affected in an era of growing economic disparity. Ironically, this last point may have helped Trump in 2016 but may not help him in 2020.

  8. charon says:


    Dennison sometimes looks as if he has a neurological condition, perhaps stage 2 or 3 of Alzheimers or something similar. If so, he has several risk factors for fast progression, could be more noticeable in 18 months.

  9. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Kathy: At $3.49/gal., the price of oil has already gone up where I live. Additionally, I live in the Pacific Northwest where all of our gas comes from the refinery in Anacortes, WA where they refine Alaskan oil. If there was going to be a bright side to oil prices, I would expect to be seeing it. Don’t seem to be.

  10. JKB says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    The West Coast is a separate oil market only connected to the rest of the US by train transport of petroleum products. In addition, there are higher state gas taxes there. The west coast is running $0.80 higher than any other region and more than $1 than most.

  11. JKB says:

    Perception is important in the impact of a strong economy on voters. The strength has been showing up in places where it had been absent for years under Obama. In addition, Hispanic unemployment is at historic lows and Black unemployment is also way down. Job growth has been higher for those without a college degree while not budging much for those with a college degree.

    During the first 21 months of Donald Trump’s presidency, the 2,622 mostly rural and exurban counties he won in the 2016 election added jobs at twice the pace they did during the previous two years under the Obama administration and at a slightly higher rate than the 490 counties that supported Democrat Hillary Clinton.

    Red America overtook Blue America last May in 12-month employment growth for the first time in seven years, according to a Brookings Institution analysis of county-level economic data for Bloomberg News.

  12. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @JKB: I’ve thought that at times and can certainly see how that would work. Thanks for the information.

  13. Hal_10000 says:

    As I said in the other thread, the last time we kicked an incumbent out with a healthy economy was, arguably 1828. It’s not that Trump will necessarily win; it’s that if he loses, it will be a historic defeat.

  14. grumpy realist says:

    This, of course, assumes that Trump doesn’t bring the whole thing crashing down on him due to his trade wars with, well, everyone. Looks like he’s decided to have another tariff snit fit with China, much to the horror of the WSJ.

    Popcorn time!

  15. Teve says:

    Djia dropped 473 today on suspicion that Trump may fuck it up with China. Hope not.

  16. An Interested Party says:

    In addition, Hispanic unemployment is at historic lows and Black unemployment is also way down.

    A pity that Republicans are led by a racist and that the party is so hostile to blacks and Hispanics…

  17. Matt says:

    @Teve: What’s funny is that the day before that drop an article popped up in my news feeding that trumpeted the dow’s rally as a result of everyone agreeing that the tariffs were good for the country and that a trade war would be better. Then the next day…. lol

  18. grumpy realist says:

    @Teve: Given Trump’s lack of brain and vulnerability to being manipulated, I can’t help but wonder if some of his policy zig-zags and Twittergasms are being primed by people in the WH who use the resultant drops and jumps in the stock market to make out like bandits.

    An interesting form of insider trading, if so….

  19. rachel says:

    @grumpy realist: Well, as has been pointed out in other discussions on this site, Trump is very predictable. Once you get his ear and figure out which comments will yield which result, all you need to do is drop the line you need to get the result you want.