President Donald Trump’s campaign aides and surrogates say his top argument for a second term is the economy. Yet, at a campaign rally Monday night in Kentucky, the president repeatedly chased his economic sales pitch with a shot of impeachment.
Relatively early in his Lexington rally — the expressed purpose of which was to boost GOP Gov. Matt Bevin’s reelection bid in Tuesday’s election there — Trump launched into one of his favorite bits about the economy.
“Your 401(K)s, how you doing? Pretty good? Pretty good, right?” the president asked the Rupp Arena crowd.
“People tell me that their wives and their husbands … they’ve, been running the 401(K)s for years. And they totally lost respect for, let’s say the husband. Totally lost respect. Now they think he’s a financial genius because it’s up 74 percent. She says, ‘Darling. I love you. You are the most incredible brilliant financial mind.’”
Part two of the bit goes like this: Trump warns that if Democrats take the White House in 2020, those retirement account balances will go “down to nothing” and trigger a “depression the likes of which you’ve never seen — mark my words.”
But it was not long before Trump pivoted back to the topic he had opened with: House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.
“They’ve been plotting to overthrow the election since the first hour that we won — and actually before we won,” he said.
Then it was back to the economy, Kentucky’s in particular.
“If you remember, before we ran [for president], companies were leaving Kentucky. … They were going to Mexico. They were going to China, Japan. They were going all over, anyplace but Kentucky,” Trump said before contending that “they’re all coming back.”
According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the unemployment rate began to fall in Kentucky in early 2010 after peaking around 10 percent; it steadily declined under then-President Barack Obama and has continued to do so under Trump.
Trump continued his economic warning-as-sales-pitch by saying the Democratic candidate in the governor’s race there, state Attorney General Andy Beshear, wants to take a “giant wrecking ball” to the state’s economy. Then he pivoted back to impeachment.
“Beshear doesn’t represent you. He represents the Washington swamp and he’s backed by the same people trying to overthrow the last election,” Trump said, referring to House Democratic leaders.
Political analysts say Trump is intertwining the economic and impeachment messages to remind independent voters who remain on the fence about 2020 that the economy is strong despite signs of slowing, while also using Democrats’ inquiry to convince Republican voters who have soured on him that Democrats are out to get him and his supporters.
“The models for the state of the economy, looking back at previous incumbent presidents in their reelection bids, suggests the incumbent would win with this kind of economy,” said Ken Mayer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin. “Even with an overall approval rating of between 40 percent and 42 percent, the models suggest the incumbent should have a pretty good shot.”
The economic message — and its potential appeal to independent voters that polls suggest have been moving away from the president — will be important for Trump as the 2020 cycle heats up.
That’s because “historically, presidents don’t get reelected because of their base,” Mayer said. “The base just isn’t big enough. And the 2018 midterms were a reversal on Donald Trump, especially among independents.”
Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg said recently that Trump might have alienated independents to an extent that a solid economy might not be enough.
“The president has done everything to lock up the evangelical bloc and the tea party bloc, but he has driven away [John] McCain conservatives and socially liberal moderates,” he said. “I don’t see how he reverses the trends.”
It might depend how much voters use the economy to guide their votes. RealClearPolitics’ average of 10 recent polls found 50.9 percent of Americans approve of the president’s handling of the economy (44.2 percent did not), even as his approval ratings aggregate is 43.4 percent and his disapproval rating is at 54.5 percent.