Strong jobs report released ahead of midterms

CNN's Christine Romans takes a look at the jobs report the Labor Department released four days before the midterm elections.

Posted: Nov 2, 2018 10:55 PM
Updated: Nov 2, 2018 11:24 PM

For months now, the US economy has been roaring. The latest evidence? The October jobs report -- 250,000 jobs added, 3.7% unemployment rate and wage growth at 3.1%.

Traditionally, a booming economy accrues to the benefit of the president -- putting him and his party in prime position for electoral gains, especially this close to an election.

But President Donald Trump is anything but traditional. And even as the economy has soared, his job approval numbers have stayed stagnant -- and low. In the latest Gallup weekly tracking poll, just 40% of Americans approved of the job he was doing while 54% disapproved. An NPR/PBS/Marist poll released earlier this week showed similar numbers, with Trump's job approval at 41%.

And, as Gallup's Jeffrey M. Jones noted in a recent analysis on the midterms: "55% of Americans rate current economic conditions as excellent or good and 12% as poor, for a net rating of +43. That is far better than the average net rating of +10 since 1994 and better than in all recent midterms except 1998." (WaPo's Philip Bump has a terrific analysis of this data -- and Trump -- here.)

Yet, with just four days left before the 2018 midterms, conventional wisdom is that Republicans will lose the House majority they've held since 2010 and will narrowly hold onto their Senate majority, despite defending just nine seats to Democrats' 26. The GOP is also poised to suffer significant losses at the gubernatorial level.

So, what gives? Why isn't Trump's party in better shape given the stellar state of the economy?

The answer to both of those questions is simple: Trump. Or, more specifically, that outside of his hardcore base, people just don't like him.

Again, Gallup's Jones:

"The President's current job approval rating of 41% from the October 15-28 poll is well below the 52% average in midterm elections since 1974 and is one of the lowest for a president prior to a midterm election over that time. Trump's approval rating in the most recent week of Gallup tracking is similar, at 40%."

Unlike past presidents, Trump is simply not getting the credit for what is broadly acknowledged as a very strong economy. And the reason is almost certainly because people do not like him or approve of him personally.

Here's a data point to back that claim up. Usually a president's personal favorable ratings are significantly higher than his job approval ratings. The reason is simple: People may dislike a president's policies but they tend to admire or at least respect him as a person, or husband and father. So they are far more likely to say they view him personally in a more favorable light while disapproving of the job he is doing.

With Trump, there's none of that. According to the Real Clear Politics polling average, Trump's job approval is at 44% while his personal favorability is 42%. There's just no difference between people who think he is doing a good job and people who like him. The opinions are one and the same.

Consider this (admittedly extreme) scenario: Trump is elected. He employs the exact same policies -- on trade, on regulations etc. -- that he has over his first two years in office. But he simply never appears in public. Never. He never tweets. Never.

Sure, there would be stories about our hermit President. People would wonder if something had happened to him. But it's hard for me to believe that if Trump had followed that plan, his party would not be in better shape to break historical trends against the party in power for midterm elections right now.

Of course, Donald Trump being Donald Trump, he could and would never play such a low-profile role. But given what we know about how presidential approval almost always moves in sync with economic satisfaction and optimism, it's hard to see Trump's lagging job approval ratings as anything but referendum not on his policies, but on him.

Which could make for a very interesting post-election period for Republicans if they wind up suffering -- as expected -- significant losses in the House. Political defeats -- and those defeated -- are always in search of scapegoats, and given the numbers I laid out above, the most obvious person to blame is the President of the United States.

BUT Trump has already made clear he isn't planning to accept any of the blame if Republicans lose the House or suffer other setbacks in four days' time. "I think I'm helping people," the President told the Associated Press in mid-October about whether he would accept blame. "They would say that in the old days that if you got the support of a President or if you've got the support of somebody it would be nice to have, but it meant nothing, zero. Like literally zero. Some of the people I've endorsed have gone up 40 and 50 points just on the endorsement."

In short: If Republicans lose on Tuesday, look out. It's a defeat that should fall at Trump's feet. Everyone knows that except, well, Trump.

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