When half the American people approve of a president’s handling of the economy, that president should have an election edge.
President Donald Trump’s economic job approval is at 50 percent in the latest RealClearPolitics polling average. But with the election just five days away, it is Joe Biden with the advantage. In large part, that is due to voter concerns over the coronavirus, an issue on which Trump should be doing better but isn’t. For example, in the early days of the pandemic, on Jan. 31, the Trump administration declared a national health emergency and banned travel from China. Biden’s response was to call this action “xenophobic” and “hysterical.”
Still, the Trump administration’s communications mistakes on the coronavirus are undeniable. The president has yet to deliver a concise, substantive defense of his administration’s achievements in fighting the virus and its economic impact on families and businesses. There is a reasonable case to be made, but the president has failed to make it.
This leaves the Trump campaign facing an uphill climb to victory next week. But there is still a path if Trump can make this a state-by-state coalition election focused on the economy, just as he did in 2016.
For this strategy to work again, Trump needs to recreate three key elements of his win four years ago.
First, he must win the popular vote outside California. Despite winning the national popular vote overall in 2016, Hillary Clinton did not win the popular vote outside California. Trump, on the other hand, lost California but carried the rest of the country by 1 percent and with it the Electoral College.
Second, Trump needs late deciders to break his way. In 2016, unfavorables for both Clinton and Trump led to late decision-making. Almost 1 in 5 voters had an unfavorable view of both candidates, and they eventually broke for Trump 47 percent to 30 percent.
In 2016, polls not in the field up to Election Day missed the late movement in the Rust Belt toward Trump. Based on the national margins we see today in Biden’s favor, late deciders would need to break heavily toward Trump in the campaign’s final days to close the gap.
Third, some significant changes in voter preference that helped deliver the vote for Trump in key states must be repeated. In 2016, he won independents by 4 points, even while losing key groups such as women (-13) and young voters (-19).
In another election cycle, as we saw in 2018, those margins would be devastating for any candidate, but in Trump’s case, his weakness with some groups were offset by changes in vote preference in other groups, especially in the Rust Belt.
For example, the GOP margin among union households closed from -18 in 2012 to only -9 in 2016. The vote among those making less than $50,000 in income closed from -22 in 2012 to -12 in 2016.
Trump’s message also appealed to voters with some college/associate degrees, winning them by 8 points, up from -1 in 2012. He also flipped voters with a high school education from -6 in 2012 to +5. For Trump to win this year, this coalition of nontraditional Republican voters must be sustained.
It’s the economy, stupid
Finally, in these last remaining days, it is critical that the Trump campaign messaging stay focused on one topic, and it isn’t Hunter Biden. I understand the frustration of Trump supporters, who have endured literally years of charges leveled against the president and now see a near total blackout by social media and their mainstream media counterparts on the Hunter Biden scandal.
But I would argue that Trump and his campaign will make the same mistake they made in 2018 if they focus on an issue that is of limited interest to voters outside the two parties’ bases. On the Friday before the midterm election two years ago, Republicans got a gift when the monthly jobs report announced that 250,000 jobs had been created, in what was then a 49-year low. Even a former economic adviser to Biden called it “pretty much everything you could want in a monthly jobs report.”
But rather than playing their strongest card — Trump’s historic record of job creation versus the Obama-Biden weak economic recovery — Republicans spent the weekend before the election talking about immigration and the caravans heading toward the border. Immigration is important, but in the big scheme of things, the economy and Trump’s record-setting progress were more important to more voters. But that’s not what they heard.
This weekend, there is one key question voters need to think about. It isn’t “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Or whether you like or dislike Donald Trump personally. Or whether Joe Biden can handle the coronavirus better than Trump.
For undecided voters, who represent a much lower number than four years ago, the Trump campaign needs to pose one question — “Who can defeat the virus and bring the economy back?” The Trump campaign can win that argument by comparing the two candidates’ records and plans for the future.
People forget, if they ever knew, that it took the Obama/Biden administration 43 months to bring the unemployment rate below 8 percent. It took Trump six months in the middle of a pandemic to bring a 14.7 percent unemployment rate in April down to under 8 percent by September. There’s something to talk about this weekend.
Any comparison between the Obama-Biden recovery and the Trump economy puts Trump in a good position. So does contrasting Trump’s economic stimulus efforts in the throes of the pandemic with Biden’s late-to-the game critiques.
The Hunter Biden scandal may reflect serious wrongdoing. But in these last days before the election, it only distracts from what should be Trump’s winning issue — the economy — if he lets it.
David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.