Jul 19, 2019 - Politics & Policy

Focus group: It's still the economy, stupid

Illustration of President Trump sitting on the tallest of five bars of a bar chart.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

WARREN, Mich. — Some swing voters here told us that even though they hate President Trump's behavior, they'll place more importance on the state of the economy — and their personal financial situations — when deciding how to vote in 2020.

Why it matters: This highlights the challenge for Democrats who relish the opportunity to label Trump as "lawless" or a "divider-in-chief." Every incumbent president since FDR who has avoided a recession in the lead-up to an election year was re-elected.

The small group of swing voters we spoke with last week at an Engagious/FPG focus group included 9 people who voted for Barack Obama and then Trump, and 3 who flipped from Mitt Romney to Hillary Clinton.

  • While it's not a statistically significant sample like a poll, their responses show how some voters are thinking and talking about the 2020 election in crucial counties.

What they're saying: “His antics, mannerisms, and personality I could do without," said Anthony I., "but I feel like there are a lot of good things happening in the country that people don’t like to admit."

  • And there's only one thing that could make Anthony ditch Trump in 2020: "Our economy would have to really crash for me to vote against him."
  • Laura Provo, an Obama/Trump voter who is retired, said she doesn't think Trump's "professionalism is up to where it should be for a president."
  • But, she said, because of Trump "the economy is better in general for most of America." Provo added she's noticed "more manufacturing jobs opening up out there" and noted that the economy "keeps growing."

These voters really like President Trump's tariffs, mostly because they're hoping they will bring more jobs to the U.S.

  • "Tariffs are a good thing because [NAFTA] was always beneficial for other countries," said Larry S. "I mean, all this money's going out and nothing's coming back in and no one cares about the United States."
  • Kathy R. said that thanks to President Trump's tariffs, "We're able to get more car lines and truck lines back from foreign countries after he started doing that."

Reality check: U.S. manufacturing is in a recession. A growing number of businesses are citing “greater risk aversion,” largely because of the tariffs, as a reason for not making more purchases or investments.

  • Trump's policies have introduced a real risk of stoking inflation — absent for more than a decade — as retailers large and small have said the tariffs will force them to raise prices.
  • At the same time, the president's chronic hectoring of the Fed and his trade war with China have the central bank on course to lower U.S. interest rates in the midst of a growing economy with rising wages.

By the numbers: In a July poll from The Economist/YouGov, 33% of people said they think the economy is getting better overall, and 49% said they approve "somewhat" or "strongly" of President Trump's handling of the economy.

The bottom line: Some voters might be willing to overlook the chaos around Trump or his unconventional style as long as the nation's economic engine keeps humming.

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