The economy has been a major factor in determining the outcome of presidential elections throughout U.S. history. That will clearly continue to be the case in this 2020 presidential election cycle, although I certainly think there are unusual factors challenging the economy for salience in voters' minds this year. Additionally, the perceived state of the national economy and the candidates' economic proposals are likely going to have their most important effects on turnout among supporters of the two major candidates -- and not so much in terms of actually changing voters' minds.
The economy remains relatively low in rank order when Americans are asked to name the most important problem facing the nation today. Our latest Gallup report concluded: "Relatively few Americans, 12%, say any economic troubles, including the economy in general terms, unemployment or economic inequality, are the most important problem facing the country." This contrasted with 35% who named the pandemic and 22% who mentioned the government as the most important problem. (This report was based on Gallup's August update, but preliminary data from Gallup's not-yet-released September polling shows little change from these basic findings.)
But then we have this update from a recent Kaiser Family Foundation report on its latest survey: "The economy has now secured a spot as the top issue in the 2020 election." This conclusion results from voters being asked to choose from a list the one issue that will be most important in their vote for president. More choose the economy than the coronavirus outbreak, criminal justice, race relations or healthcare.
A new USC Dornsife poll, like the Kaiser Foundation survey, also finds that the economy is chosen as the top issue above any of eight other possibilities.
So, while the economy may not be top of mind as an important problem, it generates the most reaction when it is included in a list of issues to which Americans respond one by one. The salience of the economy increases when voters are explicitly reminded of it.
An interesting Wall Street Journal analysis from Sept. 13 was headlined, "'It's the Economy, Stupid' Carries Less Weight in 2020 Election." The thrust of this article, as is clear from the title, is to argue that the coronavirus, the candidates' personal characteristics and the search for racial equity are competing with the economy as the top concern on voters' minds this year (as Gallup's "most important problem" data show). The authors -- Jon Hilsenrath and Aaron Zitner -- also reference the extraordinary polarization that provides Americans on both sides with a rigid lens through which they judge any topic or issue or person put in front of them. Thus, partisans' economic evaluations are increasingly based on their underlying ideology and party identification rather than on the objective status of the economy as measured by the usual quantitative measures.
The results from Gallup's September update on Americans' economic confidence provide support for this conclusion, documenting that Americans' views of the national economy are dramatically different based on underlying partisan orientation. There is a 51-percentage-point gap in Republicans' and Democrats' ratings of the current economy as excellent or good, and an even larger 66-point partisan gap in the percentages saying the economy is getting better. Party identity clearly provides the framework through which the world is viewed and evaluated.
Trump vs. Biden on the Economy
What about views of the two candidates' performance on the economy? Trump has generally done better on the economy than on most other issues that pollsters measure -- six points higher than his overall approval rating in Gallup's August update. Trump has usually bested Biden on head-to-head measures on the economy as well.
But it is interesting to note that not all researchers agree on trends in these measures. The New York Times in late August reported: "Why Trump's Approval Ratings on the Economy Remain Durable." Meanwhile, The Washington Post just a couple of weeks later published this headline: "Trump's Lead Over Biden on the Economy Appears Vulnerable, a Potential Turning Point." In late July, CNN reported, "Trump Has Lost His Economic Edge Over Biden." But the recent USC Dornsife poll produced the headline, "Biden Leads on Everything but Jobs and the Economy," and NBC News last week said that "Democrats Are Nervous About Trump's Persisting Edge Over Biden on the Economy."
Obviously, question wording or differences in how surveys are administered may lead to these differing interpretations. But I think the important finding in the data is the degree of partisan differences in views of the two candidates and their potential handling of the economy. Some 91% of Republicans and independents who lean Republican said they approve of Trump's handling of the economy in Gallup's August update, compared with 14% of Democrats and independents who lean Democratic. That's a whopping 77-point gap. Quinnipiac and ABC News/Washington Post surveys show the same pattern.
Thus, while analysts may disagree on trends, gaps in how partisans see their candidate's handling of the economy remain huge. Potential Trump voters approve of how he is handling the economy and his policies for handling the economy, and that's not going to vary a great deal. Biden's base voters disapprove of Trump's handling of the economy and like Biden's approach. This is not going to change a lot either.
The key to all of this for the two campaigns is generating turnout among those voters who hold these hardened views, more so than attempting to change people's underlying attitudes and views of either the candidates or the economy.
Turnout Remains the Key
There will be a great deal of focus between now and Election Day on what the candidates say about the economy -- in the three presidential debates, in campaign ads, and in speeches and interviews. There will no doubt be continuing coverage of changes in the real-world economy, particularly quantifiable indicators such as the stock market, unemployment and economic growth. Other noneconomic concerns, including the coronavirus and the situation revolving around racial inequity, will compete with the economy for voter attention. Some of these factors will no doubt affect the vote choices of independents and uncommitted voters. But, throughout it all, it's not likely there will be a lot of change in underlying voter partisanship and ideology, meaning that these factors will have their greatest effect by motivating partisan voters to act on their underlying predispositions.