Commentary: It’s no longer Trump’s economy; it’s the pandemic’s

While the economy is likely to improve, it may not recover quickly enough to help Trump in November.

By Karl W. Smith / Bloomberg Opinion

For most of his presidency, Donald Trump’s hopes for reelection have depended almost entirely on the economy, particularly in the swing states that he narrowly won in 2016. They still do; but now the state of the economy depends almost entirely on the course of Covid-19.

To be clear: There is no more important task facing the U.S. than bringing the public-health crisis under control. The virus is still dangerous, and the priority should be to minimize the loss of life.

That said, there is no denying that one of the major consequences of the coronavirus is economic. And by the time voters are making up their minds in late October, it’s highly likely that the economic effects of the virus will be more salient than the public-health effects. (Indeed, that should be the hope.)

Voters have notoriously short attention spans. The mistakes made in the initial handling of the virus will be a distant memory. Moreover, as the virus continues to sweep across the globe, it’s unlikely that the U.S. will be an outlier in terms of the per-capita loss of life.

That implies that unless there is second wave, the economy will once again be the dominant issue; and that opens up a second set of questions.

On the one hand, even in the best-case scenario, unemployment is still likely to be high, probably in the double digits. As savings are exhausted, the economic pain for many families will be getting more acute. On the other hand, barring an absolute disaster, the economy will be recovering — at least temporarily — at a breakneck pace.

This doesn’t require any sort rosy optimism about a V-shaped recovery. Even if the economy regains only a fraction of the jobs lost through the summer, the autumn may very well see “the best economic data we’ve seen in the history of this country,” according to one of former President Obama’s economic advisers.

How will voters react? So far it seems that their response is real, but muted. Trump’s job approval on the economy has fallen significantly from its highs near the beginning of the year, but remains above water. Fascinatingly, several polls have showed that voters trust Trump’s handling of the economy over that of Joe Biden; even as those same polls indicate they trust the Democratic challenger more when it comes to containing the spread of the virus.

That’s further evidence that voters don’t currently view the virus and the economy as related; and they may be even less likely to do so come November. That has some Democratic operatives anxious about the possibility of a “nightmare scenario” for Biden in the fall.

That seems unlikely. To the extent the economic models of the election are still valid, they suggest that what happens over the summer is more important than what happens in the fall. Undecided voters don’t base their decision on the latest job numbers; they base it on how they feel about their own economic circumstances. There is often a lag between the two.

When President George H.W. Bush lost reelection in 1992, for example, the unemployment rate was actually falling (nearly half a percentage point between June and October). Most voters, however, still viewed the economy as on a downward trajectory.

Trump’s current high marks on the economy may reflect a similar sort of lag. Unemployment claims have skyrocketed in the last few months, but for many the economic pain is only now beginning. If the lag is still there in the fall, then the lingering economic damage from the pandemic may hurt the president’s chances more than any nascent recovery would help.

Karl W. Smith, a former assistant professor of economics at the University of North Carolina and founder of the blog Modeled Behavior, is vice president for federal policy at the Tax Foundation.

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