By all means, the U.S. economy is booming.
In the first quarter of 2019, the GDP rose at a 3.2 percent annualized rate, shaking off the effects of a five-week-long government shutdown – the longest in U.S. history – that White House officials once warned could result in near-zero growth. The labor market is also humming, with an average monthly creation of 213,000 jobs. Unemployment is at a historic low and, best of all for President Trump, the Federal Reserve seems content to leave interest rates unchanged, barring any drastic changes.
The question, however, remains whether Trump will be able to translate a strong economy into a victory at the ballot box come next November.
“It’s one judgment,” Helmut Norpoth, a political science professor at Stony Brook University, told FOX Business. “I think it has to translate into a more general approval of the president.”
Despite the country’s strong economic gains, Trump remains a largely divisive president among the general electorate. The most recent Gallup poll, conducted between April 17 and April 30, found that his approval rating was 46 percent -- the highest it’s been since he first took office, but still relatively low when compared to past presidents. At his lowest, Trump only garnered an approval rating of 35 percent, which he hit four times.
If the economy really will be a defining factor for voters in 2020, Norpoth said, that approval rating should eventually surpass 50 percent. All in all though, Trump’s approval rating has remained mostly stagnant since becoming president. Norpoth, who correctly predicted Trump’s victory in 2016, thinks that’s partially because constituents have already made up their mind about the president.
“It’s sort of almost set in stone,” Norpoth said. “People have an opinion about him, good or bad. There’s very little that seems to budge that. It’s very unique, I think, for Trump.”
Historically, the economy tops a list of issues that voters consider important during elections. Ahead of the 2018 midterms, for instance, 78 percent of registered voters said they considered the economy to be extremely important, according to Gallup. It was second behind only health care.
Of course, during the midterms, Democrats gained control of the House for the first time in eight years. That’s not necessarily indicative of what’s to come in 2020, however, as midterms almost always swing in favor of the political party not currently occupying the White House, Norpoth said.
Still, others think Trump’s solid economic record could ultimately provide a big boon to his electability next year.
“I think he understands better than most that when the average American goes to the polls, no matter what they think of him personally, they're going to evaluate their station in life and ask themselves: ‘Am I going to be better off with the new candidate?’” said Jamie Cox, the managing partner for Harris Financial Group.
Plus, the economy seems poised to continue growing without the threat of rising interest rates, Cox said. Now, the only real negative are tariffs and the more than yearlong trade war between the U.S. and China. (On Friday, the U.S. more than doubled the tariff on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods to 25 percent from 10 percent, further escalating tensions with Beijing.)
Escalated tensions or not, the markets, Cox said, seem to have grown somewhat accustomed the constant tariff threat as the shock value wears off and companies find ways to circumvent the tax. The Dow may have plummeted this week (at one point falling more than 400 points), but it recouped those losses on Friday, ending the day in the positive.
“The president is playing the odds that the economy is strong enough to withstand a few months of this, in the hopes that he can actually land a deal,” Cox said.
And if Trump does manage to make a trade deal with China? His chances of beating the Democratic nominee would become even further solidified.
“The ability to land a trade deal with China and be able to trumpet that for the next 12 months while the other candidates have no such accomplishments would make him all but unbeatable,” he said. “That’s the game that he’s playing.”