Voters Aren’t Feeling the Economic Recovery Yet
Part of the problem is timing, and part is messaging.
By the numbers, it’s morning in Joe Biden’s America. Inflation just hit a two-year low. Unemployment is at a record low. The markets are climbing and 401(k)s are up. The Fed is predicting a “soft landing.” But from what I can tell, Biden isn’t getting any credit.
When I talk to Republican primary voters from around the country in weekly focus groups, it’s clear that the positive macroeconomic trends haven’t translated into a feeling of prosperity—at least, not yet.
“I’ll be 70 years old tomorrow, and I have never seen anything like this,” Roger, a two-time Trump voter from Iowa, told me. “I listened to my dad talk about the Depression. He would be appalled at what we’re going through.”
“My dad, too,” chimed in Tracy, a Republican voter from South Carolina.
“When Trump was president, we used to be able to buy food and eat meat,” said Claudia, an Iowa Republican. “We're living like vegetarians now, where we can barely afford anything anymore. I have to work six nights a week just to keep going. I’ve never seen it this bad.”
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“Inflation is crazy. My electric bill was $375 last month,” said Sean, a Republican from New Hampshire. “Bills are getting expensive. And I make good money, but it’s just never enough . . . I think everything could be definitely better if Trump was in office.”
“If my brother didn't live in my house, if we didn't share the bills, I would not be able to make it on what I have,” Tracy from South Carolina told me. “Do I want to go visit my friend in Savannah this weekend? Oh wait, no, I can’t. I don’t have $100 for gas. And I work very, very hard, sometimes doing three jobs.”
Tracy raised the idea of a civil war if things don’t change. Lots of people in the group nodded their heads.
In another focus group with swing voters—those who voted in the Republican primaries in 2016 and then for Biden in 2020—I heard the same things:
“I think the way the market’s going is just terrible,” Kris from Georgia told me. “I changed who I voted for because I thought a change might make how I felt different, but it didn’t. I think they both [Trump and Biden] did terrible.”
Linda from North Carolina said, “every time I look at my retirement statement, basically I think I want to fall over.” Ditto Brian from Michigan: “The economy is bad. I also have retirement accounts that just make me gasp when I open them up.”
“I actually switched my vote to Biden, but when it comes to the economy, I also think he's not doing such a great job,” said Jasdev from Georgia.
Dixie from Michigan spoke for the group: “I just think we need somebody in there that can make the economy better, without all the tweets and stuff that Donald Trump did.”
My colleague Jonathan V. Last points out that these voters appear willing to look past the economic dislocations of Trump’s final year in office, but not acknowledge positive economic trends under Biden.
It’s tempting to write off Republican voters’ concerns as mere tribalism. After all, in our hyper-polarized politics, voters are loath to give credit to their political opponents, even when credit is due. And it’s true that die-hard Republicans have a lot invested in the narrative that Joe Biden is an incompetent chief executive presiding over a catastrophic economy.
But even the swing voters Biden won over in 2020 are dissatisfied with his performance. They’re clearly open to persuasion. The problem isn’t that they’re benighted, brainwashed, blinkered partisans. The problem is that all the positive macroeconomic data don’t reflect what they experience in their everyday lives.
No matter how good they look, macroeconomic trends don’t vote. People do.
Biden’s performance among persuadable voters still has time to improve. If inflation remains low and wage growth catches up, these voters may feel very differently about the economy—and about the relative performances of Trump and Biden—in a year.
Waiting for things to get better, however, won’t be enough to convince them to give Biden credit. Democrats have a messaging problem. Or perhaps, rather, an amplification problem.
When Trump was in office, the Republicans never wasted an opportunity to remind voters about the “best-ever economy” for black people, for Hispanics, for women, the best-ever economy overall—you get the picture. Here’s Jim Jordan rattling off a list of economic accomplishments under Trump.
Who in the Democratic party is doing this today? If Biden can’t, where are his surrogates?
The Biden team seems aware that they’re playing from behind. It recently rolled out “Bidenomics” as a corrective. Tim Miller was onto something when he suggested a “Secretary of Speechifying” to beat the drum for Biden in a way he can’t do for himself. But they have to make up for lost ground.
Not all voters are persuadable. Few of the people who voted for Trump in 2020 are likely to be convinced that the economy is better under Biden. But Biden doesn’t need them; he needs to hold on to swing voters—and based on what I’m hearing in focus groups, he’s losing ground.
I can’t think of anything more important to Biden’s re-election than a strong economy. And hopefully we continue to head in the right direction. But it’s a mistake to assume that results speak for themselves. Biden and every surrogate he can muster needs to be speaking about them as well.