Updated on November 7, 2020 at 12:00 p.m. ET
Why didn’t the pandemic recession precipitate a landslide for Joe Biden?
That is a central mystery stemming from a narrow, if decisive, loss for President Donald Trump. Even though the unemployment rate is more than double what it was a year ago, even though 1 million Americans a week are applying for jobless aid, even though Congress has failed for six months to pass desperately needed additional stimulus, even though Trump has the worst job-creation record of any president going back to World War II, voters gave the incumbent decent marks on the economy up to Election Day, and he expanded his 2016 vote count by at least 5.7 million.
Five factors seemed to be at work, turning what should have been a gale-force headwind against Trump into little more than a breeze, and allowing the president to continue running on the strength of an economy that the coronavirus destroyed.
The first is that the general election occurred when the economy was bouncing back, not when it was falling apart. Voters, as a general point, care a lot about the direction of the economy: They are more prone to punish a ruling party if the unemployment rate is low but rising than if it is high but falling. Trump fell into that latter category, as did Barack Obama in 2012. The terrible-but-improving economy let Trump run on a record of restoring jobs and reopening businesses, and meant that as voters made up their mind, they saw historic growth numbers and strong jobs reports, not a sharp drop in year-over-year GDP and awful unemployment rates.