It’s not the Economy, Stupid

In the United States, non-economic factors are now the major drivers behind voter choice

By: /
4 April, 2024
In the United States, worry over an uncertain future is a strong brew for those who feel unmoored and displaced. Image: Jackie Ramirez/Pixabay
Jeremy Kinsman
By: Jeremy Kinsman
CIC Distinguished Fellow

Now that the US primaries have resulted in the selection of two elderly candidates, that a large majority of Americans say they don’t want, the race between them for the White House can now get fully underway. 

Betting averages show a slight advantage for former president Donald Trump, in part because 11% of Democrats hope that someone other than Joe Biden (Michelle Obama or Gavin Newsom for example) will be nominated instead. But from a new category of “double-haters” who don’t want either candidate, 8% profess to “hate” Biden less.

Meanwhile, a recent Economist cover portrayed the two candidates stepping onto a platform strewn with banana peels – the magazine warning us that Trump’s trials, and Biden’s old-guy issue, could still upend the election.

Trump, of course, has baked in support from his Republican base, which has made the GOP “the Trump party.” Biden’s support is more mobile, and showing leakage from his winning 2020 coalition led by  Hispanics, Blacks, and especially younger voters who have been turning away. But Biden’s overall support was bigger to start with, and has growth potential from Republicans repelled by Trump’s “chaos agent” propensity and unsavoury character. 

Trump’s primary margins against Nikki Haley were large, but about half of her 20-35% primary voters in several states told exit polls they couldn’t vote for him. The Trump team claims no worries there, making no move to attract Haley’s supporters, labelling them likely Biden votes in the first place.

The race will therefore stay uncertain, even as it gets nastier. Historically voters don’t bear down on a choice until Labor Day comes around. When they do, will the “kitchen table” economic issues keep the dominant election topic status they have held for generations?

It’s the economy, stupid

“It’s the economy, stupid” James Carville wrote on the Clinton campaign war room blackboard in 1992. It was actually one of three options on the board, along with “change versus more of the same,” and “don’t forget health care!” 

In 1992, the economy was President George H. W. Bush’s greatest liability. Unemployment had risen to 8% amid record deficits and the lowest job creation rate since the Great Depression. His approval rating had plummeted from a high of 89% in late February 1991, after the victorious Gulf War, to just 28% in August 1992. When his campaign sent him to a grocers’ convention his natural and amiable curiosity compelled him to ask how bar codes worked, a routine feature in retail since the 1970s. Having been since 1971 successively ambassador to the UN, and then China, Director of the CIA, and Reagan’s Vice President for 8 years until elected himself in 1988, President Bush hadn’t done a lot of recent grocery shopping. The word also naughtily got out that he had no clue about the price of milk either. 

Clinton won that election with 43% of the vote, mostly because the third-party conservative candidacy of Ross Perot took 18.9% of voters largely away from Bush. After 12 years of Republican rule, “more of the same” was a liability. 

Still, “It’s the economy, stupid,” became electoral mantra.  Now, apparently, it isn’t.

Historically, incumbent presidents seeking a second term have been shoo-ins for re-election if the US economy is doing well. And Biden is presiding over the best performing US economy in a half-century.

After the sharp inflationary rise during Covid, inflation has fallen to below 3%, GDP growth leads the G7, unemployment is under 4%, and working wages are up across the board in real terms, especially for Blacks. Yet, while polls indicate 51% of Americans claim a “good” personal situation, only 26% award US economic conditions a “good” rating. 

One explanation is the rise of polarized hyper-partisanship. Republicans are overwhelmingly loathe to credit Biden’s Administration with a “good” economy, even if it is one.

Non-economic factors are driving voter choice

Heading towards November, non-economic factors have become the major drivers behind voter choice, notably the swirl of “identity” issues.

The perception that accelerated change in American life, sponsored by government or inadvertent, is undermining personal values, tribe, status, and situation has been growing since the Obama administration, when a trend showed White working class males shifting away from Democrats. Race was part of it. So was the loss of manufacturing jobs to globalization. 

Stylistically, though Obama’s policies were anything but radical, the Democratic Party became identified with the “woke” agenda of minority rights. Its urban and bicoastal issue identity seemed alien to “left-behind” locales in mid-America and the South, and to conservative and religious values.

Also, a general negativity has been infiltrating public opinion in the US for years, amplified by social media, reinforcing distrust of institutions, aversion to “elites” and imposed political correctness. In addition, rampant growth in income disparity has led to grievances from a marginalized underclass battling day-to-day just to get by, while feeling victimized by crime and uncontrolled immigration.

However, Biden has proposed higher taxes on the super-rich and violent crime is actually way down. He has also promised to “close the border” to rampant migration. Legislatively speaking, Biden’s achievements are significant: the Inflation Reduction Act, the first consequential US climate bill,  the innovation-supportive CHIPS and Science Act and the bipartisan Infrastructure Law. 

But in a polarized media culture, he gets little credit from resentful voters who believe he heads up a “system” rigged against them. Trump plays to their grievances and wins their devotion, though again, the base numbers alone aren’t enough to win him the presidency.

Probably, character and performative ability of candidates are top-of-mind for most voters.

Still, Biden’s relative unpopularity is puzzling, and does seems performative. He comes across as older than he is, impeding his potential to appear commanding. On the other hand, his recent boffo State of the Union address to Congress of over an hour presented a vigorous President. But tens of millions still wonder how commanding he will manage to be when he is 86 and still President. No matter how hard he tries, he won’t wholly overcome the fact that 55% of Americans judge his health and age severely limit his ability to do the job (including 25% of Democrats).

Trump’s threat to US democracy

Biden has shouted out Trump’s threat to US democracy. It’s vivid, especially to Biden supporters: a study prepared for the Trump campaign by the Heritage Foundation as a blueprint for a second Trump term, Mandate for Leadership: The Conservative Promise details the many ways in which Trump would undo democratic practices in the US. But few in Trump’s base will read it, think about it, or even care, given that most of them buy into his lie that he actually “won” the 2020 election, which is as fundamental a rejection of democracy as one can imagine.

Biden has also vaunted his candidacy as being focused on America’s future while depicting Trump’s as a backward lurch to the past. But nostalgia for a misremembered past at a time of worry over an uncertain future is a strong brew for those who feel unmoored and displaced. In any case, Biden’s pose at 81 as the man of the future doesn’t ring true in this political movie script.

At last, Biden’s campaign is playing up the most plausible of his comparative advantages, seeking  comparison to his opponent’s outsized character liabilities, depicting Trump as an “agent of chaos.” 

“Chaos” invokes memory of January 6, 2021, and the inflammatory climate of Trump’s first term. It also references a world in a state of unusual dissonance and crisis.

Foreign policy seldom has a lead role in US elections, except when failing expeditionary wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan stirred mass protest. However, the Israel/Gaza crisis is uniquely a foreign policy issue that is resonating politically at home. Biden has lost younger voters on seeming to support Israeli retributive belligerence against Palestinians but may yet come up with an experienced statesman’s success in settling the agonizing crisis.

Keeping America out of foreign entanglements always resonates, and certainly pre-dates Trump. 

Trump loyalists who oppose paying any more to support Ukraine’s existential struggle against Putin’s aggression often respond, “I just want to protect America,” while referencing the “invasion” at the southern US border. Biden makes clear supporting Ukraine’s battle against arrant invasion does protect America and the international norms so many Americans have died to defend.

But Biden won’t win on these offshore diplomatic activities.

He has to convince enough Americans that Trump is too unhinged and chaotic a personality to represent them and to help bring order back to the world America can’t hide from. The whole democratic global community’s distaste for a Trump return won’t move a lot of US voters, but the prospect of “America alone” in a dangerous world is not comforting even to nationalists.

Other volatile issues are in play, such as abortion rights, and of course Trump’s legal issues. He may escape trials but not indictments. There’s also the oddball third candidacy of disruptor Robert F. Kennedy Jr who may be polling now as high as 15%. One survey found that a sizeable number of his voters believed he actually IS his dead and heroic father. That goofy thought conjures the real underlying worry about American voters en masse.

A recent book, The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory by Tim Alberta, a Christian journalist, recounts a scene from the funeral of his father, a conservative evangelist, during which a note from a Trump supporter-guest attacked him for his liberal writing that was “part of a plot to undermine God’s anointed leader of the US.” The author’s criticisms of Donald Trump, the note said, “were tantamount to treason – to both God and country.” When Alberta’s wife read the note, she asked her husband, “What the hell is wrong with these people?”

That’s a wide-spread worry that many non-American friends of America also have about the country these days.

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