The coronavirus is already wreaking havoc on the American economy, which will almost certainly get worse. Analysts are forecasting a massive contraction in the country’s economic output, and early signs point to an impending deluge of unemployment claims. Entire industries could be devastated.
This reality is dawning on Americans of all political stripes. In new survey data from the Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape project, the percentage of Americans who believe the economy is worse than a year ago has increased dramatically — to 46 percent in the most recent survey from 18 percent only a month ago.
The graph below shows the percentage of Americans who said the economy is better minus the percentage of those who said it is worse:
The shift is apparent not only among all Americans but among Democrats, independents and Republicans alike. For example, in the most recent March 12-18 survey, 48 percent of independents said the economy was getting worse and only 17 percent said it was getting better — for a net score of minus 31. Republicans remain more positive overall, but the shift in their attitudes is actually the largest — from a net positive score of plus 71 at the beginning of February to plus 24 now.
By itself, this economic contraction would likely forecast defeat for any incumbent president — and initial forecasts suggest Trump would be no different.
The question, however, is whether Trump will pay a cost for presiding over a declining economy. As of right now, he hasn’t. The Nationscape data show no change in the percentage of Americans who approve of the job he’s doing:
Trump has actually become slightly more popular since the summer, which is consistent with the pattern for incumbent presidents seeking reelection. Thus far, the coronavirus pandemic has not led to a clear decrease.
One factor helping Trump is that evaluations of the president appear increasingly divorced from the economy. This was true for Barack Obama, and it has also been true for Trump. The graph below shows how the relationship between the public’s views of the economy was largely unrelated to approval of Obama and Trump:
One reason for this gap is the increasing tendency to view both the economy and the president through a partisan lens.
However, neither Obama nor Trump was tested by a full-fledged economic recession that started while they were president — until now. The big question is whether Trump’s approval rating will remain stable as Americans confront the impact of the coronavirus on their livelihoods, communities and the country as a whole.
The answer to that question will likely determine whether Trump’s presidency can survive.
Robert Griffin is a political scientist and research director of the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group.