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How Donald Trump Could Benefit In November From A Bad Economy

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks during a rally in San Jose, Calif., on June 2.
Josh Edelson
AFP/Getty Images
Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks during a rally in San Jose, Calif., on June 2.

The latest jobs report was downright ugly. Lots of people seem to agree on that. The economy only added 38,000 jobs in May, well below the 219,000 average over the prior 12 months.

It's the latest in what has been a mixed bag of economic reports, and if past voting trends are any guide, more bad news could be a drag on Hillary Clinton in November.

Several analyses have suggested that a better economy in the months just before Election Day helps the sitting president's party. In tougher economic times, meanwhile, voters are more likely to punish the sitting president's party.

And that's regardless of how the economy performed under the sitting president. It's true that the economy has rebounded steadily since Obama took office. However, studies (not to mention common sense) suggest that voters tend to recall recent economic performance most easily, rather than considering the last four or eight years of economic performance.

If that's true, and if the economy underperforms in the next five months, it could help Trump at the polls in November.

What the studies say

Several studies have found that the economy is a major factor that affects how people vote — more specifically, that voters reward the incumbent party when they feel that economic times (and in particular, their personal incomes) are good, and voters are more likely to boot the incumbent out of the White House when they feel economic times are bad.

The key phrase there is "they feel." As it turns out, several researchers have written, voters are really bad at assessing how the economy has been during a presidency.

"[Voters] forget all about most previous experience with the incumbents and vote solely on how they feel about the most recent months," wrote Princeton political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels in a 2004 paper, one of the most commonly cited on the topic of voting and the economy.

They found that growth in personal income in the six months leading up to an election greatly boosts the president's party's performance — regardless of how well the economy was doing in the prior few years.

In fact, they went so far as to say one could account for recent (at the time) presidential election outcomes "with a fair degree of precision" based solely on those six months of income growth and how long the president's party has been in power.

So, for example, the 2008 downturn helped boost Obama (that is, voters punished Republicans) and his 2012 reelection was boosted by a "modest but timely upturn in the income growth rate," as Bartels wrote in a 2013 paper.

Likewise, in a 2013 paper, economists from Loyola Marymount and the University of California, Berkeley used surveys and experiments to determine that while voters intend to vote based on a politician's full economic record, they nevertheless tend to heavily weight the most recent economy in choosing whom to vote for. Once again, they tended to reward an incumbent president or governor's party based on their most recent income growth.

Those studies focused on income, but other analyses have likewise found links between other indicators and election day outcomes.

In a 2011 analysis, FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver found that monthly job growth in the three quarters before an election was one of the most reliable economic indicators of an incumbent party's success.

Economic growth is the measure that Yale University Economics Professor Ray C. Fair uses in his forecasting model, which counts GDP growth in the nine months leading up to election day as one of its four election predictors.

(However, Silver and Fair weren't out to prove that voters considered the short term more than long term; those were simply the time periods they chose to study.)

Are voters being fair?

To be clear, this does not mean President Obama is the driving force behind the economic recovery. Presidents simply do not control the economy. They can, of course, push policies that can boost growth — the 2009 stimulus is one policy that many economists agree greatly helped pull the U.S. out of recession — or that lead to economic ruin, like telling U.S. creditors to accept a haircut. And either way, the president generally needs Congress' help in passing economic policy.

Even Obama's former Council of Economic Advisors Chair Austan Goolsbee has said people overestimate the president's economic power.

"I think the world vests too much power — certainly in the president, probably in Washington in general — for its influence on the economy, because most all of the economy has nothing to do with the government," he told Marketplace in 2012.

So if voters give presidents too much credit (or blame) for their full economic records, it follows that they maybe shouldn't consider the economy as much as they do right now in choosing whom to elect.

Indeed, there's evidence of voters being affected by even more arbitrary trends; Achen and Bartels found in one 2013 paper that a string of shark attacks in New Jersey in 1916 hurt Woodrow Wilson at the polls.

So what happens in November?

The latest major economic reports have been middling to disappointing; job growth is trending downward and GDP growth has slowed down.

Still, income data hasn't looked bad the last few months — and a couple of those studies focused in particular on income. Indeed, wage growth was maybe the only non-abysmal spot in Friday's jobs report. And the latest GDP report — despite showing decelerating growth — suggested that at least in the short term, income might be picking up.

Not only that, but (as of February), Gallup found that a majority of Americans disapprove of Obama's handling of the economy — only 46 percent approve. It's unclear what this would mean for Clinton, though — that's still Obama's highest point since 2009, and he has been on an upward trajectory since last August.

One more important statistic: despite all the cries of "economic angst" in this election, Americans have been relatively optimistic about the economy, as GWU's John Sides pointed out in a blog post at the Washington Post's Monkey Cage earlier this year (where he also referenced Achen and Bartels' paper, as well as the bad-economy, anti-incumbent connection). Consumer confidence is still below where it was in the booming 1990s, but it's still relatively high, historically speaking.

So it's possible the latest bad reports are just a blip, and that whatever weakness there is isn't dragging on people's economic confidence (or their incomes) all that much.

But if those latest disappointing reports signal a downturn — and particularly if that downturn drags on people's incomes — that could then be great news for Trump. It's possible, of course, that the economy is simply settling into a more "sustainable rate of growth," as economist Justin Wolfers writes at The Upshot. In that case, voters may reward Obama (and therefore Clinton) for what they perceive as his economic success.

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Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.