The U.S. economy is objectively awful right now. The unemployment rate is at levels not seen since the Great Depression and this quarter’s decline in gross domestic product is expected to be the worst on record. Most economists believe it will take years to recover from this recession.
Not everyone thinks the economy is doing so poorly, though.
In the most recent Quinnipiac University national survey, 69 percent of Republicans described the U.S. economy as “excellent” or “good.” Similarly, nearly two-thirds of Republicans in both Civiqs’s daily tracking polls and in a June 11-15 Associated Press/NORC Poll said that the nation’s current economy is at least leaning toward good. By contrast, only around 10 percent of Democrats thought that the national economy was doing well in those surveys.
In fact, a closer look at Civiqs’ data1 shows that Democrats’ and Republicans’ views of the economy are more polarized now than they’ve been at any point during President Trump’s time in office.
That isn’t to say that Democrats and Republicans have seen eye to eye on the economy at previous points in Trump’s presidency. They haven’t.
As you can see in the chart above, there has been a fairly large — and persistent — gap in how Democrats and Republicans think about the economy. However, that gap did shrink after the pandemic’s dire economic effects became apparent, and by early May, only one-third of Republicans still thought that the economy was in good shape.
Republicans’ economic optimism, however, quickly rebounded in June as states allowed businesses to reopen and the May jobs report was released with better-than-expected news.
Even when Republicans’ outlook on the economy was at its lowest point this year, according to Civiqs data, they still felt more upbeat about the state of the economy than at any point in 2016 before Trump was elected, when the economy was objectively better.
This isn’t necessarily surprising, though, as political science research has found that a strong economy might not benefit a president as much as it once did, in part because voters’ views on whether the economy is healthy tend to be linked to whether their preferred party is in power. That says a lot about how polarized our politics have become, and it also underscores a key point that John Sides, Lynn Vavreck, and I have repeatedly made about the 2016 election: The widespread economic dissatisfaction and anxiety driving much of the media narrative about Trump’s political rise and the 2016 presidential campaign wasn’t a reflection of actual economic realities, it was largely a consequence of partisanship.
Of course, the difficulty is that these attitudes aren’t just partisanship either. After eight years of Obama’s presidency, racial and economic anxiety became increasingly intertwined to the point that racial resentment was a much stronger predictor of economic pessimism under Obama than it had been under George W. Bush. That is, white people — especially white Trump voters — believed that Black people were getting ahead while they were left behind.
Take the 2016 American National Election Studies survey. Before Trump took office, the more racial discrimination white people thought their own group faced, the more likely they were to say that the economy was worse than it had been a year earlier. These voters largely voted for Trump. But under Trump’s presidency, a similar poll found that white voters were less likely to say the economy had gotten worse if they believed white people faced high levels of racial discrimination.
In addition, nearly three-quarters of the 69,000 respondents surveyed for the Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape in the past three months have said that the economy is worse than it was a year ago. But only around half of white respondents who think their racial group faces a lot or a great deal of discrimination shared this economic pessimism. (This was true even after controlling for several other factors, such as partisanship and income.)
In other words, Americans’ political allegiances and views on race influence their views of the economy. That marks a significant departure from the last time there was an economic downturn during a presidential election campaign. Americans, regardless of their partisanship and racial attitudes, universally thought the economy was in terrible shape after the financial collapse in 2008.
But that isn’t the case now. So why is the coronavirus recession so different?
One reason is that even though the national economy is in shambles, it’s also ticking back up. It’s unclear how fast the economy will recover, but this uncertainty opens the door for voters to adopt their own partisan and racialized explanations for the economy’s performance. Additionally, in a presidential election where the incumbent had long planned to base his case for reelection on a strong economy, Americans are all the more motivated to view the economy through political lenses.
Not to mention, Trump has also tried to bend the country’s bleak economic reality to his will. He has said that the economy is springing back from the coronavirus recession like “a rocket ship,” claiming that the economic recovery is “the greatest comeback in American history.” This is very different from 2008, when few Republicans made the case that the economy was in good shape. At the time, GOP presidential nominee John McCain was even widely mocked for saying “the fundamentals of our economy are strong” before quickly reversing his position to say the economy was in “total crisis.”
But now the fact that most economists disagree with the president’s optimism about a quick rebound may not matter. As we’ve seen with the Civiqs data, more Republicans think the economy is in good shape now than thought so in 2016. And a long line of social science research shows that when political elites are sharply divided — as they are now over the economy — the public follows the lead of the elites. That is, partisan messaging is now so powerful that Americans tend to adopt their party’s standpoint even when that position runs counter to science or objective facts.
And that’s what makes the coronavirus recession so different. Americans are increasingly unlikely to abandon their partisan and racialized views of the economy. So as long as Trump projects economic confidence, Republicans will likely continue to have a much more positive view of the economy than Democrats do.