Against the Grain

Will Economic Growth Revive the GOP’s Fortunes?

Americans haven’t been this optimistic about the economy since early 2001. That’s giving Republicans a renewed chance to salvage their congressional majorities.

AP Photo/Richard Drew
Jan. 23, 2018, 8 p.m.

With the economy suddenly booming, Democrats are facing an unexpected dilemma. Party strategists have long been planning to blame President Trump for not living up to his promise of “making America great again.” But with the stock market hitting record levels, wages rising, and public perception of the economy at the highest level since 2001, Democrats are struggling to figure out whether to acknowledge the impressive growth spurt or continue blaming Republicans for other economic challenges.

Democrats’ ability to speak credibly about the economy, and not get caught up in an ideological bubble where everything is a disaster, will be critical to their ability to win back the House. The party can count on its supercharged base to turn out and hold the enthusiasm advantage in November. But the Democrats’ huge partisan advantage throughout 2017 was built on the backs of suburban, independent voters who viewed the Trump White House as a dysfunctional mess. Passing a tax bill and presiding over an expansion is already winning some of those up-for-grabs voters back.

The latest round of polling presents an unmistakable picture that economic growth is narrowing the Democratic advantage. In CNN’s latest poll, nearly 70 percent of Americans now say the economy is in good shape, up 12 points since Trump took office. By more than a 2-to-1 margin (47-23 percent), Americans say their personal financial situation is better than a year ago rather than worse.

What makes these figures even more significant is they transcend partisan lines, with even Democrats holding a rosier view of the economy despite GOP control of government. The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, showing similar findings, found that 57 percent of Democrats are satisfied with the state of the economy. (Remarkably, Democratic satisfaction with the economy under Trump is higher than it was throughout the Obama presidency.) In addition, the poll found 39 percent of Americans ready for an economic expansion for themselves and their families—the highest share since 2005—a sign that the optimism isn’t limited just to the wealthiest voters.

Those economic gains are trickling down to the political sphere. At the end of the year, FiveThirtyEight’s weighted average of congressional polls found Democrats with a significant 13-point advantage on the generic ballot—a margin that would likely mean Democratic control of the House with a shot at a Senate majority. That advantage narrowed to 7 points this week, a margin that would give Republicans a credible shot to maintain control of Congress. Trump’s weak job-approval ratings have hardly improved; it’s congressional Republicans who look like they’re experiencing bigger gains from the boom.

Interviews with leading Democratic strategists offered a mixed assessment on what this all means for the midterm elections. All told, party operatives still plan on accusing Republicans of favoring the wealthy while ignoring middle-class interests. Some aren’t sold that the public thinks the economy’s in good shape, and think an undisciplined Trump will undermine the party’s best economic arguments. Senate Democratic officials hope that vulnerable red-state incumbents get credit for the renewed prosperity, and plan on citing their specific efforts to boost growth in their home states.

Republicans, meanwhile, are increasingly bullish that they can connect the recently passed tax bill to the growing economic prosperity. “I cut your taxes. The economy is booming. Nancy Pelosi mocks you,” said one top GOP official, previewing the party’s 2018 message. Public polls still show the tax bill slightly unpopular with voters, but it’s grown noticeably more popular in the month since passage.

The political environment is still bad for Republicans. Trump is driving the public mood. He’s why the Democratic base is energized to vote, and he’s why otherwise persuadable voters will be backing Democrats—as a check on his power. At the same time, Democrats don’t want their candidates to talk about Trump too much, recognizing that his image is mostly locked in. Their current game plan to win back control of Congress—through GOP-leaning states and districts—is by prosecuting the president’s handling of the economy. They’d be smart to come up with a backup plan, one that recognizes that the economy is in fact the only issue on which Trump scores well.

And Republicans, for the first time in a year, are showing signs of political life. They badly outmaneuvered Democrats on the government shutdown, managing to give the minority party shared ownership for the Washington dysfunction. The Democratic Party is becoming more beholden to its intransigent base, just at the time when it needs pragmatists to be the face of the party. Now the economy looks to be taking off, just before the time when voters start locking in their perceptions before an election.

The biggest mistake Democrats made in 2016 was expecting everyone to share the liberal line on cultural issues. They stopped trying to persuade voters of their cause. If they’re not careful, they risk making a similar mistake on the economy, assuming Americans are falling behind just as they’re celebrating a wave of newfound prosperity.

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