Despite very low unemployment and a growing economy, only about four in 10 Americans approve of the way President Trump is doing his job. What does this portend for the midterm elections in November?
Although the state of the nation’s economy is robustly related to presidential election outcomes — and Mr. Trump would be expected to benefit if the economy remained strong in 2020 — it usually plays a less direct role in midterm results. In midterms, the results track more closely to how the president is “handling the job” rather than to economic indicators. Of course, the economy is seen as part of that job.
Partisanship has increasingly become a lens through which people make those evaluations, making it harder to use things like the president’s approval rating as a barometer for the general mood in the country. Mr. Trump’s ratings are so low in part because nearly all Democrats disapprove of the job he is doing; the same was true for Barack Obama among Republicans.
Similarly, when Mr. Obama was president and the economy was growing, Republicans thought it was getting worse, and Democrats thought things were improving. Today, those same Democrats think the economy is worse than it was a year ago, while Republicans think things have gotten better.
But what about independents? What nonpartisans make of Mr. Trump’s stewardship of the economy may give us some insight into whether Republicans will get a boost in the midterms, because independents are often the most persuadable voters. It may also offer an indicator of whether weakly committed Republican partisans might defect at the polls, even as their ratings of presidential approval remain high.
Nonpartisans are not the easiest group to study. In a typical survey, there may not be enough of them to get reliable estimates of their attitudes (see The Upshot’s live polls for an idea of how hard it is to get people to answer election polls in general, and then imagine how hard it is to get nonpartisans to answer).
Some academic studies, however, do better with this because they have more time to conduct interviews and spend more money on an overall project to measure public opinion — not just election outcomes. The Democracy Fund’s Voter Study Group has been tracking 8,000 people since 2011, and more than 1,300 of these describe themselves as independents with no party leaning. The timing of the project makes it possible to follow the same independent voters during the transition from Mr. Obama’s presidency to Mr. Trump’s.
Despite the fact that more people are declining to register at the polls as belonging to one party or another, the number of people identifying themselves as independents with no party tendencies has been relatively stable.
Sixty percent of nonpartisans from the December 2011 wave of the study remain purely independent of party in the summer of 2018. The 40 percent who moved did so in roughly equal fashion to both sides of the aisle. About 13 percent changed their affiliation to lean toward Republicans, and another 13 percent to lean toward Democrats — still calling themselves independent when initially asked but acknowledging, when pressed on the question, that they tilt one way or the other.
Another 6 percent changed their descriptions to weak partisans of each party (3 percent each), and the remainder split pretty evenly into strong partisans, with slightly fewer calling themselves strong Democrats than Republicans.
Despite the unexpected events and vitriolic nature of much of the politics of the last two years — and despite the movement of 40 percent of independents out of the category over the last seven years — the share of independents in the electorate has changed by only 2 percent over all. There are slightly more independents in 2018 than there were in 2011, with more Democrats moving in to the category of independent than Republicans, but not by much.
In December 2011, these nonpartisans were not impressed with the nation’s economy. Roughly four in 10 thought things had stayed the same, and another four in 10 thought things had gotten worse between 2010 and 2011. Just over 8 percent thought things had gotten better, and 5 percent were not sure what to think. These assessments reflect the period’s proximity to the global financial crisis and the fact that many people were still unsure whether the recovery would continue or expand.
By 2016, these same independent voters had become slightly more optimistic. Five years from their first interview, just more than half of them thought things had stayed the same in the last year, while only 30 percent thought things had gotten worse. Still, only 12 percent thought things had gotten better between 2015 and 2016.
After Mr. Trump’s election, however, these same independent voters shifted their assessments of the economy in a notable manner: Just over a year after the president’s inauguration, 35 percent of the nonpartisans in the Voter Study Group panel thought the economy had gotten better over the last year, nearly three times the share who thought so in 2016.
Perhaps the unified message from political elites about a growing economy (with Democrats saying Mr. Obama delivered the recovery and Republicans crediting Mr. Trump) helped to nudge some independents into believing things had gotten better. But another interpretation is that the nonpartisan voters in 2018 simply appreciate that the economy is doing well — more so than they did in 2011 or 2016.
Relying on independents as a bellwether for political outcomes is not as straightforward as it seems. Independents tend to be less connected to politics in general, paying less attention to news about public affairs and expressing less interest in politics than partisans.
But if the midterm elections are a referendum on Mr. Trump’s presidency, it may be relevant that today three times as many independents think the economy is growing as did in 2016. On the other hand, only a third of them think that, on average, things are better today than they were a year ago. This suggests that Mr. Trump’s other qualities, and his many controversies, may not allow him to reap significant political benefits from a strong economy.
Lynn Vavreck, the Marvin Hoffenberg Professor of American Politics and Public Policy at U.C.L.A., is a co-author of “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America.” Follow her on Twitter at @vavreck.