But Trump’s unrelenting emphasis on stoking that base—both in his rhetoric and through his policies—creates two distinct but interrelated problems for his reelection. One is that he’s providing the fuel for Democrats to mobilize their own core constituencies, particularly young people and nonwhite voters. The second problem is even more formidable and may represent the biggest obstacle to winning a second term: His polarizing approach to the presidency is alienating an unusually large number of voters satisfied with the economy.
Read: Trump’s immigration policies unify white Republicans
That dynamic clearly wasn’t on his mind at his Tuesday rally in Orlando. He did dutifully tick off a list of economic accomplishments in his speech, but only after an hour of splenetic reliving of old grievances about the Robert Mueller investigation, the media, and Hillary Clinton. He demonized immigrants with sweeping condemnations. He raged, blustered, and summoned his supporters to a battle for survival against Democratic opponents, whom he portrayed as not only misguided on policy but as fundamentally un-American in their aims. “They want to destroy you and they want to destroy our country as we know it,” he thundered.
In all these ways, Trump attempted to pump up his base by acting in exactly the manner that pushes away so many voters who are content with the economy but disenchanted with his behavior.
Trump’s tenure is straining one of the most enduring rules in presidential politics: the conviction that a strong economy benefits the party holding the White House. James Carville, the chief strategist for Bill Clinton’s first campaign, in 1992, condensed that belief into a four-word aphorism: “It’s the economy, stupid.” Given the low unemployment, strong stock market, and steady growth in total economic output the country is experiencing, some election-forecasting models, specifically those that emphasize the economy’s performance, predict an easy reelection in 2020 for Trump.
But polling throughout Trump’s presidency has consistently shown that economic improvement hasn’t lifted him as much as earlier presidents. Across many of the key groups in the electorate, from young people to white college graduates, Trump’s job-approval rating consistently runs at least 25 points below the share of voters who hold positive views about either the national economy or their personal financial situation.
The result is that Trump attracts much less support than his predecessors did—in terms of approval rating and potential support for reelection—among voters who say they are satisfied with the economy.
Read: Trump defies the law of presidential approval ratings
Long-term comparisons from the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll quantify the shortfall. In a 2006 survey, then-President George W. Bush drew positive job-approval ratings from 71 percent of Americans who said they were satisfied with the economy, according to figures provided by Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican firm that co-directs the survey with the Democratic firm Hart Research Associates. Likewise, in 2013 and 2015, just over 75 percent of economically satisfied voters said they approved of Barack Obama’s performance as president.