Was It a Mistake for Trump to Focus on the Economy?

Jobs Day in 2016 has become an anti-climax, thanks to an improving climate that aids Hillary Clinton. So why is the Republican still painting a bleak picture?

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Remember the 2012 election, that happy time when an optimistic America  loved both of the candidates for president?

OK, that’s not quite the way I remember it either. One of the more distinctive features of that election was the fetishization of Jobs Day—the ritual release of the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ employment numbers for the previous month. The circus-like anticipation of that release, a dry statistical exercise that repeats without fail every month, was somewhat peculiar, drawing out heavy press coverage and even bizarre conspiracy theories.

Jobs Day became a major event because the U.S. economy was still recovering from a deep and prolonged recession; because there was a close, contested presidential election; and because the political press, focused as never before on the power of data, became semi-obsessed with the power of jobs reports and the unemployment rate to predict who would win the election. In general, a growing economy is a very strong predictor of whether the incumbent or—crucially—his party will win; jobs and the unemployment rate, in particular, are among the very best specific indicators.

But this year, Jobs Day has become a non-event, with bored political reporters mostly allowing their colleagues on the business desk handle jobs, while they focus on the latest Trump gaffe or Clinton scandal. (Thanks, Bourree!) For one thing, as bleak as the mood in the country may be over a Clinton-Trump election, there are greater signs of optimism on the economic front.

There have been rare exceptions to the lack of interest in a few months this year. A rotten May report startled the Democratic Party and set off questions about whether Hillary Clinton was in trouble. Then things stabilized with a few excellent reports. The August report was more underwhelming, but the country still added a decent 151,000 new jobs.

David Malpass, a Trump economic adviser, issued a statement bemoaning the results:

The August jobs report shows the stagnant Clinton-Obama economy fails to deliver the jobs Americans desperately need. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the economy added only 126,000 private sector jobs in August.

The unemployment rate is unchanged at 4.9% rate. The country’s labor force participation rate is 62.8%, near a historic low. The Clinton-Obama recovery is seven years of failure on virtually every significant metric—growth, income, trade and jobs. Donald Trump’s policies will put America First, Make America Work Again and Make America Great Again.

These sorts of warnings tend to ring a little bit false when the economy continues to grow, if more slowly than anyone would like. But this has a been a consistent theme for Trump. He has centered his campaign around doomsday predictions about the economy. He paints the country as cratering, with offshoring accelerating, jobs disappearing, and growth cratering. The problem is that there’s little to support the idea of accelerating offshoring; job creation is up; and the economy is growing.

Tom Edsall noted this week that Trump’s bleak message doesn’t make a great deal of sense in swing states like New Hampshire, “where the unemployment rate in July was 2.9 percent, well below the 4.9 percent national rate. Nor does it ring true in other battleground states where Trump is behind. In North Carolina, the unemployment rate is 4.7 percent; according to RealClearPolitics, Clinton has a 1.7 point lead. In Colorado, the unemployment rate is 3.8 percent; Clinton leads Trump by 11.8 points. In Virginia, unemployment is 3.7 percent; Clinton is ahead by 12.8 points.”

There have been darker currents to Trump’s approach to the economy. His immigration stance, which has frequently taken on a racist cast, is centered around the supposed threat that undocumented immigrants pose to the American economy. It has also led him to wild conspiracy theories. Arguing that the most commonly used top-line unemployment rate paints too rosy a picture, he has called it “one of the biggest hoaxes in American modern politics," while his son Donald Jr. has asserted without proof that the rate is manipulated for political purposes.

One can see why Trump would want to focus on the economy. As a businessman, he sees commerce as one of his major selling points (Mitt Romney also arguably fell into this trap, stung by bad timing), and besides, voters tell pollsters over and over that the economy is the most important issue to them in this election. But the fact is that the indicators that helped Barack Obama so much in 2012 appear to be helping his party and its nominee, Hillary Clinton, this year. As John Sides and Lynn Vavreck wrote in The Gamble, “Candidates disadvantaged by the economy … must find an issue on which their position is more popular than their opponent’s and on which the opponent is committed to an unpopular position.” Trump has not done that.

Many members of the anti-Trump coalition—whether progressives or those conservatives appalled by Trump—may like to believe that it is Trump’s personality or his appeals to racism, xenophobia, and bigotry that account for his struggles in recent weeks. But the decision to focus on the economy may actually be Trump’s original sin. He’s choosing to harp on an issue that is a structural strength for the Democratic candidate, while his alternative issues are crafted to appeal mostly to white voters, a too-small demographic. It isn’t personal. It’s just business.