5 Reasons Voters Didn’t Punish Trump for the Economy

The second factor is that household finances have held up better than economic headlines would suggest, because of the trillions of dollars of stimulus passed by Congress back in the spring. The one-off, $1,200 checks that Uncle Sam sent to most Americans a few months ago, combined with the massive $600-a-week temporary boost to unemployment-insurance benefits, meant that the catastrophic job losses of the spring and summer did not translate into income losses, on net, for American families, government data show. Because many households cut back spending on things such as travel, doctors’ visits, entertainment, and restaurant meals, they ended up with more cash on hand and higher savings.

That shoring-up is coming to an end, as many families spend through their stimulus payments and struggle to find work. The recovery is slowing down. Still, congressional efforts on household finances have translated into shockingly good polling on the economy for Republicans. As of September, half of Americans said they saw Trump as an effective leader on the economy, versus 43 percent for Joe Biden. Surveys conducted in October showed voters approving of Trump’s handling of the economy by a significant margin.

A third factor is that the people most hurt by Trump’s horrific mismanagement of the federal public-health response and the ensuing economic fallout were more likely to be Democrats who were not voting for Trump in the first place. In geographic terms, coastal states have suffered worse job losses and sharper contractions than many of the square states of the interior: Hawaii’s jobless rate is more than 15 percent and California’s is more than 10 percent, versus 5 percent or less in Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Iowa, and Utah. Moreover, the jobs crisis is harsher in dense, urban areas than in sparse, rural ones. As a result, the economist Jed Kolko estimates, the unemployment rate was four percentage points higher for likely Democrats than for likely Republicans as of July. Demographics and wage dispersion matter here too: The COVID-19 recession has caused disproportionate job losses for young, Black, and low-wage workers—who tend to vote Democratic. Their older, whiter, higher-income counterparts, more likely to support Trump, have come through the viral recession relatively unscathed.

More broadly, as a fourth factor, Americans seem not to blame Trump for the wreckage caused by the coronavirus or the ensuing recession, treating it more like an act of God than a product of policy choices. In an October poll, just over half of Americans said that Trump’s administration had a “great” deal of responsibility for the situation, whereas three in four Americans blamed George W. Bush for the Great Recession a year into Obama’s first term. Trump’s endless blame-shifting might have worked: He never took responsibility for the 230,000 deaths or the millions of job losses, instead blaming China and Democrats for shutting down the economy. Voters seem to have listened.