Booming Economy May Be Little Felt as Voters Decide

Booming Economy May Be Little Felt as Voters Decide

Republicans say the economy will help them in November. Democrats say it won’t. New data says the full story is more complicated.

Republicans are telling you that tax cuts and roaring economic growth are going to stop any “blue wave” in the midterm elections. Democrats say the lack of wage growth, even as corporate profits surge, will impel voters to change leadership in Congress.

It’s not that simple.

A new survey of nearly 10,000 American adults shows that the strong economy is rallying Republicans and maybe swaying some independents. But many voters still aren’t feeling the benefits of robust growth, and the tax overhaul passed last year looks as likely to hurt Republicans at the polls as help them.

The data, from a survey conducted in early August for The New York Times by the online polling firm SurveyMonkey, paints a more complex picture than strategists and pundits of either political stripe usually portray. And it helps explain why, out on the campaign trail, candidates have tended to tread lightly when it comes to talking about the economy.

Here’s a deeper dive into the latest numbers:

Americans are feeling good about the economy

SurveyMonkey’s findings, based on five questions about Americans’ financial situation and economic outlook, show consumer confidence well above the level that would indicate a neutral view of the economy. Asked how their finances have changed over the last year, Americans are twice as likely to say they are better off than worse off, and they are even more optimistic about the future.

But even with further declines in the unemployment rate and accelerating economic growth, Americans’ confidence hasn’t risen since the start of the year. And their outlook for the next 12 months has actually slipped a bit in recent months. Other surveys, showing a similar pattern, have found that anxiety about a trade war has made some Americans less upbeat about the future, even as they feel good about their immediate situation. New data from the University of Michigan on Friday found that consumer sentiment slipped in early August, with lower-income households in particular expressing concern about inflation.

Views on the economy are highly partisan

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Among registered voters, more than 80 percent of those who judge themselves better off now than a year ago say they are at least leaning toward voting for Republicans in the midterms. That might suggest that the strong economy is serving as a big selling point for Republican candidates.

Complicating that story, though, is the fact that views on the economy have become starkly partisan in recent years. Hardly any Republicans — 5 percent — say they are worse off now than a year ago. At the same time, very few Democrats — 14 percent — say they are better off. Other questions reveal a similar split.

That split is nothing new. When Barack Obama was president, it was Democrats who felt good about the economy and Republicans who were dour; as soon as Mr. Trump took over, partisan views flipped. That suggests that feelings about the economy are less a driver of partisan opinion than a reflection of it.

“I don’t think that there’s a lot that’s going to change on confidence,” said Laura Wronski, a research scientist at SurveyMonkey. “People’s responses are so consistent in terms of politics that there’s just not a lot of movement that’s possible.”

is it still the economy, stupid?

More Times coverage of the economy and the midterms.

Independents could be crucial

Democrats and Republicans might be too set in their opinions for the economy to affect their votes much. But what about the roughly 17 percent of Americans who don’t identify with either major political party? (In this article, we’re counting people who say they “lean” toward one party or the other as members of those parties.) Though relatively small, that group could be decisive in many narrow House races.

There are hints that the economy could sway them. Over all, independents who say they plan to vote in November tend to favor Democrats over Republicans by about 2 to 1. But that ratio is nearly flipped among independents who say their finances are better off than a year ago.

The economy appears to be a particularly significant factor for more affluent, educated independents — a group that could be crucial for Republican chances in November.

The tax law is motivating Republicans — and Democrats

When Republicans sped their $1.5 trillion tax cut package through Congress last year, they were certain it would work to their political advantage. (Voters, they reasoned, would be seeing fatter paychecks and turn out to thank Republicans at the polls.) Democrats said the opposite: that a bill that included large benefits for corporations and the wealthy would outrage voters and push them to throw Republicans out.

When it comes to firing up base voters, both parties were right: The poll finds that 69 percent of Republicans say the law makes them more likely to vote for a Republican candidate, while 73 percent of Democrats say the law makes them less likely to vote for a Republican. (Both numbers are based on registered voters who plan to vote this fall.)

When it comes to swing voters, Democrats were right, the poll suggests. Just 12 percent of independent voters say the law makes them more likely to vote for a Republican. Nearly three times as many, 32 percent, say the law makes them less likely to vote Republican. A majority, 57 percent, say it doesn’t matter either way.

The economy might not be decisive

In modern American politics, the president’s party typically loses seats in a midterm congressional election. Republicans are hopeful that the accelerating economy will help them buck that trend this year. Party leaders including Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the majority leader, have pointed to the 1998 midterms, when President Bill Clinton was mired in impeachment proceedings but Democrats gained seats in the House anyway, in the midst of a booming national economy.

That election was an outlier. Political scientists — including Lynn Vavreck at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Seth Masket at the University of Denver, among many others — have shown that economic conditions matter far less to midterm results than presidential approval ratings. In 1950, when the economy grew at a blistering 8.7 percent for the year, President Harry Truman’s party still lost 28 seats in the House.

Voters’ perceptions of the economy this year fall roughly in between the last two midterm years when the unemployment rate was near 4 percent: 1998 and 2006. Shortly before the 1998 midterms, when Mr. Clinton and his party gained five House seats, two-thirds of respondents to a Gallup survey rated the economy as excellent or good. In 2006, when President George W. Bush’s party lost 31 seats and control of the House, 44 percent rated the economy as excellent or good. The most recent Gallup poll shows that 55 percent of respondents rate the economy similarly now.

If history is a guide, those numbers are less important than Mr. Trump’s approval rating, which is currently underwater: 44 percent of Americans approve of his performance, while 53 percent disapprove, the Times poll shows. That rating is much closer to Mr. Bush’s approval in 2006, which dropped below 40 percent in Gallup polls just before the midterm elections, than to Mr. Clinton’s in 1998, which rose to 66 percent by Election Day.

About the survey: The data in this article came from an online survey of 9,558 adults conducted by the polling firm SurveyMonkey from Aug. 6 to Aug. 12. The company selected respondents at random from the nearly three million people who take surveys on its platform each day. Responses were weighted to match the demographic profile of the population of the United States. The survey has a modeled error estimate (similar to a margin of error in a standard telephone poll) of plus or minus 1.5 percentage points, so differences of less than that amount are statistically insignificant.

Ben Casselman writes about economics, with a particular focus on stories involving data. He previously reported for FiveThirtyEight and The Wall Street Journal. @bencasselman Facebook

Jim Tankersley covers economic and tax policy for The New York Times. @jimtankersley

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