Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University, told me that attitudes about the country’s economic health have become more entwined with partisanship, with Republicans and Democrats alike more likely to grade it favorably under a president from their own party. But, Abramowitz adds, “with Trump you’ve also got the added factor that the negative perceptions of his character, personality, style, and also some of the policies that are pretty unpopular may limit any positive effects of an improving economy or a strong economy.”
Many groups Trump might hope to woo based on the economy remain deeply troubled by his behavior. Consider college-educated white voters. In the new Quinnipiac survey, fully 80 percent described the economy as “excellent” or “good,” and an equal number said they were optimistic about their financial future. But in the same survey, 53 percent disapproved of his job performance, 54 percent said Trump has abused the power of the presidency, and 66 percent said that asking a foreign leader to investigate a political rival is inappropriate. In a September Quinnipiac poll, 57 percent said Trump considers himself above the law. And in both CNN and ABC/Washington Post surveys this week, just under three-fifths of college-educated white voters said Trump behaved improperly in Ukraine. With young adults, the story is similar.
Even among white voters without a college degree, Trump’s core constituency, the results on these questions spotlight potential cracks for Trump, especially among women. While four-fifths of non-college-educated white voters express optimism about their economic future, and a clear majority oppose impeachment, about 40 percent say that Trump abuses his power as president and considers himself above the law. Given that Hillary Clinton carried only about one-third of these voters in 2016, these concerns suggest that Democrats could make modest gains with these voters, particularly women, who already moved away from the GOP in the 2018 midterm elections.
In many ways, the impeachment ordeal clarifies a central question looming over 2020: Will Trump’s reelection turn more on what is typical about his presidency or on what is unique and even aberrant? Typically, an incumbent president would expect to win reelection in an economy this strong, perhaps comfortably; that’s why most academic forecasting models that rely on economic factors project Trump as the winner. But no other modern president, except perhaps Nixon in the final months of his tenure, faced as many doubts about his honesty, ethics, and values. Nor did any other president show himself as determined to relentlessly polarize the electorate.
As the battle over impeachment shifts to the Senate, all of Trump’s assets are on display: unchallenged command over his party, passion among his supporters, and the lift from a humming economy. But equally apparent are his unbounded willingness to trample over political, cultural, and legal norms and the ferocious opposition to him that ignites. That’s the combination that has placed Trump’s reelection on a knife’s edge for 2020, despite an economy that might comfortably propel a more conventional president toward four more years.