By most standard measures, the American economy is going gangbusters. GDP grew at a nearly 5% annualized pace in the third quarter, the best since late 2021. Unemployment sits at just 3.9%. Inflation, which had peaked at a 7.5% annual rate in January 2022, has fallen to 3.2%. Joe Biden can trumpet the fact that just under 14 million jobs have been created since he took office, a record for an American president. Over the comparable period in Donald Trump’s term — before the Covid-19 pandemic — fewer than 6 million jobs were created.
And people are certainly acting like the economy is good: Consumer spending is strong, and Americans are starting new businesses at the highest rates since the Census Bureau began tracking this data in 2006. Yet when pollsters ask people how they think the economy is doing, they don’t just express concern. They say the economy is terrible.
Every day, more ink is spilled exploring this “disconnect,” this “mystery,” this “puzzle.” Many of the factors analysts suggest as they try to explain are perfectly reasonable, and probably contribute to dim views of the economy. But most of the time, the most obvious and important explanation is overlooked: The polling data doesn’t show that Americans think the economy stinks so much as it shows that Republicans say it stinks.
It’s hard to know whether Republicans actually believe this. But it’s beyond doubt that partisanship plays a key role in what people tell pollsters about the economy.
Some partisanship has always existed in polling about the economy: When there’s a Democrat in the White House, Democrats are more likely to say the economy is good than Republicans, and both sides change their opinions when the White House changes hands. But this difference has grown in recent years — and grown unequally. A pair of economists who examined decades of polling data concluded, “While both Republicans and Democrats view the economy more favorably when their party controls the White House, the magnitude of this partisan bias is roughly two and a half times larger for Republicans than for Democrats.”
We can see how that is playing out right now. In the latest edition of the University of Michigan’s Index of Consumer Sentiment, the average Democratic score is over twice as high as the Republican score. But what is most striking is just how awful Republicans say the economy is. Their index score for this month is significantly lower than the score they gave the economy in the depths of the Great Recession in 2008 and 2009, when the economy was bleeding hundreds of thousands of jobs every month.
Yes, last year’s high inflation rates likely have lingering effects that go some way toward explaining the country’s supposedly sour mood. And there are certainly many reasons a particular person might feel bad about the economy even if, in relative terms, it’s doing much better than it was a few years ago. We have high inequality in America, high health care costs, unaffordable housing in many places and enormous student debt. Thanks to a long campaign to destroy collective bargaining, 9 in 10 workers lack union representation.
But those are not recent developments; they were decades in the making and have persisted through Republican and Democratic presidencies. It’s absurd for anyone to honestly say that because a box of Frosted Flakes costs a buck or two more than it did a few years ago, that means the economy is worse than it was during the greatest economic crisis of our lifetimes. If someone says the economy of today is particularly bad — worse, even, than the Great Recession — then either they’re deluded or they’re lying.
The response to this kind of argument is usually that we should not question the inherent truth of Americans’ lived experiences. Bandy about your economic statistics all you want, you snooty elitist; what matters is what people really feel, and you won’t convince them things are great by denying what they’re telling you about their own lives. But there’s evidence to suggest that Americans have a rosier view of the economy the more personal their experience gets. As already noted, Americans aren’t shying away from spending or starting businesses — two things that are usually less common if people feel their economic situation is precarious. And a recent Bloomberg/Morning Consult poll of swing state voters, for example, found that while just 26% think the American economy is on the right track, that number nearly doubles — to 49% — when they’re asked about their city or town.
When you break poll results on the economy out by party identification, you see how eager Republicans are to say the economy is terrible. For instance, in the latest Economist/YouGov poll, a full 75% of Republicans said the economy is “getting worse,” an assertion that is false by almost every conceivable measure.
It isn’t hard to figure out why. The conservative media and the associated echo chamber is relentless in its insistence that with a Democrat in the White House, America is a land of unending misery and despair. And with the country as polarized as it is, even Republicans who don’t spend their evenings watching Fox News will be loath to say anything that might reflect well on Joe Biden. Telling a pollster “The economy is terrible!” isn’t much different than saying the same thing on X or Truth Social, a handy way to give Biden the finger if you’re so inclined.
That isn’t to say we should throw every poll about the economy in the trash. But it does mean that every report about Americans’ perceptions ought to include an extended discussion of how those perceptions are shaped by partisanship. It’s not the whole story, but you can’t tell the story without it.