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The Implausibility of an “Explosive” Economic Rebound by November

Democrats fear that a dramatic recovery could help Trump win reelection. The number of job losses and coronavirus deaths suggests otherwise.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

On Tuesday, Politico reported a growing anxiety among Democratic policy experts that a dramatic economic recovery could boost President Trump in November’s election. Jason Furman, who chaired the Council of Economic Advisers during the Obama administration, has been pushing the argument hard and reportedly shocked “a large bipartisan group of top officials” with a presentation on the subject last month. “Instead of forecasting a prolonged Depression-level economic catastrophe,” Politico’s Ryan Lizza and Daniel Lippman wrote, “Furman laid out a detailed case for why the months preceding the November election could offer Trump the chance to brag—truthfully—about the most explosive monthly employment numbers and gross domestic product growth ever.”

Those explosive figures, the thinking goes, will be produced by an end to the coronavirus lockdowns later this year as the pandemic subsides. The Biden campaign is taking the possibility seriously, and White House officials like National Economic Council director Larry Kudlow have happily endorsed Furman’s analysis. “I totally agree,” Kudlow told Lizza and Lippman by text message. “Q3 may be the single best GDP quarter since regular data. 2nd half super big growth, transitioning to 4 percent or more in 2021.”

These predictions clash with some of the data we’re being given now. Twenty states reported an increase in new cases last week, an uptick from the 13 states that reported increases in the week prior. That spike happened to coincide with the easing of lockdown restrictions around the country, and the list of states with the highest surges includes Missouri, where viral videos and images were taken of vacationers swarming pools and venues at Lake of the Ozarks over Memorial Day weekend. This is the kind of behavior that might make a large second wave of infections more likely, and epidemiologists have long said that restrictions should be reinstated if the virus begins spreading rapidly again. If that happens before the election, the growth and employment numbers won’t be anything for Trump to crow about.

But consider the voters who will find themselves on the wrong side of an economic recovery, even if we really do see one by November. More than 100,000 small businesses have already permanently closed since March, and millions more are at risk. Will the owners of shuttered shops and restaurants be jumping for joy at the latest quarterly GDP figures? What about those running businesses that might reopen to fewer customers if wary Americans avoid going out and shopping unnecessarily well into the remainder of the year? How might they assess the state of consumer confidence on Election Day? And what about the workers who will remain unemployed—those who won’t snap back to work because the businesses that employed them collapsed and because many of the ones left will be too hard up to hire again anytime soon? What about the currently employed workers who might join them or face pay cuts as broke firms and state and local governments take hard looks at their balance sheets in the months ahead? Will they be passing charts from the Bureau of Labor Statistics around the dinner table in the fall, reassuring their families and themselves that the economy has been set right again?

Moreover, even many of those currently maintaining some degree of economic stability understand that we’re now experiencing one of the greatest failures of presidential leadership in our history. As of this morning, more than 100,000 Americans have been killed by the coronavirus—a number elevated by Donald Trump’s inaction, incompetence, and commitment to spreading misinformation. That number, in all likelihood, will continue rising for many months to come. Many Americans who have lost people close to them, and others simply horrified by this ordeal, will cast their votes in November with that grief and that horror foremost in mind.

It has been widely noted that voters in 1918 did not seem eager to punish their leaders for that year’s flu outbreak—scholars have had some difficulty discerning whether the pandemic had any real political impact at all. “[T]he connection between pain and electoral punishment requires voters to imagine—however plausibly or implausibly—that incumbent leaders could have prevented or ameliorated their pain,” the political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels wrote in a 2004 paper. “In the case of the flu pandemic, that crucial attribution of political responsibility was lacking.”

It is not lacking today. A 53 percent majority of Americans disapproves of President Trump’s handling of the coronavirus, and that number has been increasing steadily since early last month. But approval of Trump overall has remained stable. In fact, FiveThirtyEight’s average shows that his approval rating is a touch higher today than it was exactly a year ago, 42.6 percent to 41.2 percent. For that, you can thank polarization—public opinion is directed less by facts and figures than by political allegiance, and the size and composition of the two major political camps in our country hasn’t changed significantly at all. So economic growth, which Americans usually credit presidents with erroneously, did little to boost Trump’s numbers before the pandemic, and impeachment and scandal did little to bring them down. There are millions of Americans who will never abandon the president—including some willing to acknowledge that his response to the pandemic has been disastrous. And there are millions more who will never back him. Since taking office, Donald Trump has never enjoyed a day’s worth of support from the majority of the American people.

All that said, the broad composition of the American electorate will matter less in November than the preferences of the constituencies that will be key to an Electoral College victory. And as we wait to see whether Furman’s dubious speculations play out, we should avail ourselves of some of the numbers we already have in hand. Right now, Joe Biden is seemingly ahead in almost every swing state. He’s also made eye-popping gains among some of the most reliable and reliably conservative voters—the elderly. A Fox News poll last week found him ahead with voters over 65 by 17 points. Trump won the category by seven points in 2016. The picture may well change in the months ahead, but Biden will probably be in good shape on Election Day. The same probably cannot be said for the economy.