The fate of the Donald Trump presidency may rest on whether his Republican Party (the GOP) maintains control of both chambers of Congress in November’s mid-term elections.
Democrats are in a strong position to capture a majority of seats in the House of Representatives, and have an outside shot at capturing the Senate as well.
Trump is relying on a vibrant economy to bolster Republicans’ bid this fall.
Just how good is the “Trump economy”? There are two problems with Trump’s assertion that he is responsible for the good economic times.
First, the extent to which the economy has improved is exaggerated. Second, Trump is hardly responsible for its current condition.
In the year since Trump assumed the presidency, the American economy has improved in many measurable ways. Unemployment is down (from 4.8 per cent when president Barack Obama left office to 4.1 per cent today.
However, monthly job growth in Obama’s final year in office was 187,000, compared with only 171,000 per month in Trump’s first year), gross domestic growth (GDP) is up (2.3 per cent last year versus 1.5 per cent in 2016), and the stock market has added trillions of dollars in value, though it recently suffered a 10 per cent correction.
Moreover, using the broad measure of the stock market, the Standard and Poor 500, Trump’s first year yielded an increase of 23 per cent while that of Obama’s for the same period increased 36.9 per cent.
Even if one concludes that the economy is sizzling like it has not in decades, the president is only partly responsible, and some of his actions, such as increasing the national debt with a large tax cut and imposing huge tariffs on steel and aluminium, are likely to worsen the country’s long-term economic outlook. And there’s more to ponder.
First, the unemployment rate has been in steady decline since 2009.
Second, the stock market skyrocketed with Obama at the helm, and GDP grew from -3.19 per cent in Obama’s first full quarter to 3.24 per cent in his final full quarter.
Third, the global economic picture has improved tremendously over the last year.
Indeed, GDP growth in Europe and Japan has surpassed that of the US, and many major equities markets in Europe and Asia have outperformed the US share market.
Finally, many financial analysts insist that the nation’s central bank — the Fed — should be credited with the American market’s gains, because of its wildly aggressive quantitative easing under former chairman Janet Yellen.
But even if we assume that Trump is correct in his oft-repeated claim that he is responsible for these good economic times, and that most Americans agree that he deserves such credit (polls consistently show that they do not; a majority give Obama more credit than Trump), there is little evidence, either historically or empirically, to suggest that a vibrant economy, credited to Trump, will save his party from electoral disaster in November’s mid-term election.
In the first mid-term election year following a president’s inauguration, the party of the president almost always fares poorly, regardless of the state of the economy.
Indeed, the sitting president’s popularity is far more reliable than economic indicators in predicting mid-term outcomes.
Remember that all 435 House seats are up for grabs every two years, while only one-third of Senate seats (34 this year) are contested. This is why the House is always the focus of more attention in off-presidential-year voting.
Since the end of World War 2, the president’s party has lost an average of 27 seats in the first mid-term election after he took office.
Even relatively popular presidents have had a tough time bucking this trend.
Nevertheless, a president who is popular — as evidenced by standard approval ratings — weighs down his party in this election less than unpopular presidents do.
The approval ratings at the time of first mid-term voting with new presidents is clear. Dwight Eisenhower had a 61 per cent approval rating in 1954, while John F. Kennedy’s was 61 per cent in 1962, and their parties lost 18 and four seats, respectively.
On the other hand, in 1982 a 42 per cent approval rating for Ronald Reagan foretold a loss of 26 GOP House seats, a rating of 46 per cent for Bill Clinton was followed by a loss of 52 seats for the Democrats in 1994, and, most recently, Obama’s 45 per cent approval came with a disastrous loss of 63 seats in 2010.
Presently, Trump’s approval rating hovers around 40 per cent. It was 46 per cent when he took office and has ranged between 35 per cent and his inauguration-day high, according to Gallup polling.
To wrest control of the House from Republicans, Democrats must pick up a net 24 seats in November. Remember, this is fewer than the average number of seats (27) picked up by the out-party in a president’s first mid-term year.
William G. Borges, a political scientist, is editor of the textbook ‘Economics’, 2nd edition, published in 2016 by SJ Learning. He is a member of the HELP University faculty.