As a general point, the economy matters for presidential campaigns—not to the extent that it is the only thing that matters, but it matters more than almost anything else. Research shows that voters seem to care about financial conditions more in the year of an election than in the prior years of a president’s term. And they seem to care more about the direction in which the economy’s headed than about its overall health.
The economy helps explain Jimmy Carter’s loss in 1980 and George H. W. Bush’s loss in 1992, as well as Barack Obama’s victory in 2012. The jobless rate was rising sharply during Carter’s and Bush’s reelection campaigns, with the ravages of stagflation and the fallout from an oil-price shock, respectively, souring voters on the incumbent presidents. Although Obama was presiding over a dismal economy when he fought Mitt Romney in his 2012 reelection bid, things were turning around.
This year’s projected headline numbers look dire for Trump, far worse than the numbers ever were for Carter, Bush, or Obama—far worse than they have looked for any postwar president. The jobless rate is anticipated to jump fivefold or tenfold in a matter of weeks, from its current rate of 3.5 percent. Growth is anticipated to tip down from a 2 or 3 percent annual rate to –18.3 percent, as Zandi estimates, if not lower. Household income is anticipated to collapse in unprecedented terms too. Taken by themselves, these statistics point to midnight in America, and a Reaganesque victory for the Democratic nominee.
“The historical parallels are obviously far from perfect, but voters have seemed pretty willing to punish incumbents for the economic impact of global depressions, droughts and floods, and all manner of conditions beyond any president’s control,” Larry Bartels, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University, wrote in an email. “The economic numbers in the next six months will probably look unlike any we’ve seen in the period covered by most statistical analyses of economic voting, so it would be rash to extrapolate the magnitudes of effects implied by those analyses, but even a muted effect will be far from moot.”
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Trump, however, may not fit the usual pattern. Whatever the country has pitched into is not a normal crisis or recession. And the American electorate is behaving differently from how it has behaved in the past.
For one, voters have become far less likely to switch parties or abandon their party’s candidate: Trump has fewer on-the-fence voters to compete for, but also fewer to lose. A majority of states were swing states in the 1960s; just a handful are today. Counties have become locked-in too. In the 1992 election, 1,096 were decided by a single-digit margin and just 93 were decided by a 50-point-or-higher margin. In 2016, those figures were 303 and 1,196, respectively. There are no more swing voters. There is no more purple America.