Americans’ confidence in the economy is fragile, with a majority of voters expressing concern — a potential vulnerability for President Donald Trump if the current economic slowdown worsens before next year’s election.
The stock market tumbled last week after bond prices flashed a signal that has historically been a predictor of recessions. Stocks later rebounded, but that episode, combined with other data suggesting an economic slowdown, has contributed to increasingly dour forecasts from many economists.
But even before last week’s swings, voters were expressing doubts about the state of the national economy, according to polling conducted by the online research firm SurveyMonkey for the New York Times earlier this month.
Nearly 3 in 5 respondents to the survey said they were worried about the economy, regardless of whether they were personally struggling or doing well financially. That group cuts across party lines and encompasses a large group of voters who could collectively sink Trump’s reelection chances, including 3 in 10 Republicans and 7 in 10 independents.
Leah Proffitt, a 60-year-old Air Force veteran in Tucson, Arizona, is a registered Republican who appreciates Trump’s business experience. But she is worried about the rising government debt, thinks big businesses have too much power and isn’t convinced that the economy is as good as official statistics suggest.
“I have a house, I’m not out on the street, I’ve got a job,” Proffitt, who works in air quality for the local Air Force base, said in an interview. “We’re doing OK. But I don’t know that overall things are that good.”
Proffitt, who voted for Trump in the 2016 primary but for Hillary Clinton in the general election, said she wasn’t sure how she would vote next year. Right now, she said, the economy is not her “focal point” because she has a solid job. But if the economy turns south, that could change.
Consumer sentiment — as measured in both the Times poll and in several long-running surveys — remains relatively high, particularly among Republicans. Polls continue to show voters approve of Trump’s handling of economic issues more than of his job performance overall.
But more detailed questions have long shown persistent doubts over the health of the economy at large, and at voters’ own kitchen tables. Only about a third of those in the Times poll said they were better off financially than they were a year ago. Respondents split nearly evenly on whether they expected the next five years to bring largely uninterrupted prosperity, or periods of widespread unemployment or depression.
“A majority of people are saying they are worried about the overall economy, regardless of their own financial situation, which for most people is pretty good,” said Laura Wronski, a research scientist for SurveyMonkey.
The University of Michigan’s Consumer Sentiment Index declined this month to one of its lowest levels of Trump’s presidency, in large part because of a sharp confidence drop among Republicans and independents. The Pew Research Center reported this month that just under half of Americans have confidence in Trump’s ability to make good decisions on the economy.
Like many Americans, Jason McGathey said he is getting by in the current economy, but not thriving. His office job disappeared when the retailer he worked for went out of business. He was able to find work as a freelance writer, and his wife has held on to her job as a teacher, but McGathey describes the family as “a little less than middle class.” Other people he meets around Statesville, North Carolina, are in a similar situation.
“Everyone’s moving toward this gig economy, where you seem to need to have three or four irons in the fire,” McGathey said. “It feels like people are getting creative out of necessity to make ends meet.”
Still, McGathey, 44, said he wasn’t sure how much credit or blame Trump deserved for the economy. He voted for Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party nominee, in 2016, and he isn’t sure what he’ll do next year — he won’t vote for Trump, he said, but he hasn’t been impressed by most of the Democrats.
Trump’s most loyal backers are maintaining a rosy outlook on the economy. Among Republicans who strongly approve of the president, 68% said that both their own finances and the broader economy were doing well. But among Republicans who are more lukewarm about Trump, only 36% said the same. And among independents, whose views could be critical to Trump’s reelection chances, only 16% said they felt good about both their own finances and the economy.
Asked about their biggest economic worries, Democrats identified income inequality, while Republicans cited taxes and government spending. As for their personal finances, Democrats were more concerned than Republicans with immediate problems like low wages and high housing costs; Republicans were more focused on longer-run issues like saving for retirement.
The polling underscores why Trump has begun to express concern about news reports raising the possibility of a recession, and why his advisers have begun discussing tax-cut proposals and other measures to stimulate growth if it slows further.
Trump has mused about some of those measures publicly, though he reversed course Wednesday and said he was not considering a new round of tax cuts. And he has harshly criticized the Federal Reserve for raising interest rates four times last year, while insisting that conditions are strong and that the country is nowhere near recession. The risk for the economy — and Trump’s 2020 campaign — is that growing anxiety about the outlook could spook consumers into spending less, slowing the retail-sales engine that has powered growth this year while business investment falters.
But if the economy stays strong, it could present an opportunity for Trump to win over skeptics.
Maria Tidwell, a 38-year-old resident of Longview, Texas, doesn’t like Trump’s immigration policies, and she blames him for dividing the country. But she has gotten several raises in her job working for the local government. Her husband recently took her to upgrade her engagement ring.
“The only thing I have liked about him is the economy,” she said. “That’s it.”
Tidwell, who is Mexican-American, voted for Clinton in 2016 and said she still wouldn’t vote for Trump because of his immigration policies. But she said she suspected that a strong economy would carry more weight with other voters.
“That may kind of swing them,” she said.