Even by Donald Trump’s standards, his September has been dismal. No convention bump; allegations that he called soldiers killed in the line of duty “losers”; a bombshell Bob Woodward book in which Trump admitted, on the record, that he downplayed the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic. Oh, and the pandemic is still killing a thousand Americans a day. Recent polling has shown that Trump is trailing Biden in nearly every key metric: leadership, trust, even “law and order,” the president’s big campaign slogan.
And yet there is a silver lining for the president: Trump still has a slight polling edge on who is trusted more on the economy—despite the fact that the economy has careened into a recession under his watch.
Trump’s allies were quick to seize on this morsel of good news. Speaking to Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday, senior campaign senior adviser Steve Cortes insisted it practically guaranteed re-election. “You know, there’s a lot of crosscurrents, of course, in 2020, many things about this year are unique and singular, but I still believe that the ultimate driver of the electoral decision for most Americans is going to be what it typically is—who can create prosperity for me, for my family, and for this country going forward,” Cortes said. “And on that score, the president has a compelling story to tell, particularly given the current economic renaissance that is unfolding in this country.”
Trump’s economic edge is beguiling to many. Yes, the unemployment rate fell earlier this month, but it’s still above eight percent. The president has promised that the economy will take off “like a rocket ship,” but the recovery, to the extent it exists at all, has hardly been V-shaped. At the same time, much of the economic success of his first term was inherited. While Trump’s deregulation efforts and corporate tax cuts may have extended a booming economy, he took office amid a record expansion that began eight years earlier.
Trump is certainly given the benefit of the doubt by some voters—it was Covid-19, not his upwardly redistributive economic policies, that tanked the economy, after all. But he’s also proven that the oldest rule of elections—that the economy is usually the top issue for voters—may not be true, especially if the media is unable to convey the severity of the damage.