In 2004, Democrats were cautiously optimistic about defeating an incumbent Republican president in a competitive presidential election. Driving Democratic hopes was a single polling dynamic that created a false sense of security.
Asked 16 years ago which candidate they preferred on a whole range of issues, voters preferred John Kerry over George W. Bush. There was, however, one big exception: national security, where the Republican maintained a consistent advantage. Democrats, taking solace in the data, would routinely say, "The electorate is with us on everything except national security!"
And that would've been great for them, were it not for the fact that in the first presidential election after 9/11, many voters were principally concerned with the one issue on which Bush was ahead.
This came to mind over the weekend, as some notable new 2020 polls were released, including this one from Fox News, which showed Joe Biden leading Donald Trump among likely voters by five points nationally. Take a look, however, at the issue-by-issue breakdown:
Likely voters trust Trump over Biden on just one issue: the economy, by 5 points. Biden is favored on racial inequality (+12), coronavirus (+8), health care (+8), Supreme Court nominations (+7), and immigration (+7 points).
The latest New York Times/Siena College poll of four key battleground states pointed in a very similar direction: voters preferred Biden on race relations (+19), unifying the country (+15), coronavirus (+11), handling protests (+9), violent crime (+2), and law and order (+1). Trump, however, led Biden on the economy, again by five points.
To be sure, the incumbent president's advantage on this one issue, at least for now, isn't enough to position him to win. On the contrary, Trump is clearly trailing with 50 days remaining, his lead on economic issues notwithstanding.
But just as Bush was buoyed by his standing on one issue 16 years ago, the only thing keeping Trump in contention right now is the impression that he can deliver strong economic results.
Which is unfortunate, because just as Bush's record on national security was a mess for all sorts of reasons, economic policy probably ought to be seen as one Trump's weakest issues.
To be sure, the public's impressions have likely been influenced by a hyper-aggressive messaging campaign. On a nearly daily basis for months, Americans have been told that Trump single-handedly created the single greatest economy in the history of the world. Voters have also been told, repeatedly, that Trump inherited an economic downturn from the Obama/Biden administration, which is why the GOP incumbent can be counted on to oversee another "comeback."
Given the importance of the issue, there are a handful of basic, demonstrable facts the electorate probably ought to be aware of:
1. Trump inherited a healthy economy from the Obama/Biden administration.
2. U.S. job growth slowed after Trump took office -- even before the pandemic.
3. In 2019, Trump's third year in the White House, American job growth fell to an eight-year low, even as he pretended otherwise.
4. As a candidate, Trump set specific targets for U.S. economic growth, and as a president, he failed spectacularly to deliver. What's more, the best year of GDP growth in Trump's first term fell short of the best year of Obama's second term.
5. The economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic is partially the result of Trump's ineptitude in responsibly dealing with the crisis.
The Washington Post published an interesting analysis about a year ago, "[I]f we are linking economic numbers to presidential performance, Trump's insistence that his abilities are unparalleled are rendered somewhat suspect in that he ranks second out of the last two presidents" on several key economic indicators." That, of course, was before this year's severe downturn.
The president's insistence that he created the strongest economy in history is plainly ridiculous. But looking at the polling data, the problem isn't just that Trump is lying; it's that much of the country doesn't realize the extent to which he's lying.