That line entered our political lexicon during the 1992 presidential campaign, when James Carville, a strategist for the presidential bid of then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, scrawled it on a whiteboard in Clinton’s campaign headquarters.
The message was simple — and right: Voters care first, second and third about the economy, as understood by how they were feeling about their own financial well-being. Everything else was just noise.
And for the next three decades or so, that mantra has ruled electoral politics. How the economy is doing — or is perceived to be doing — will tell you everything you need to know about a candidate or a party’s chances of winning.
Which brings us to the current moment — and the current President: Donald Trump.
All economic indicators suggest things are roaring in the country. The unemployment rate in August was 3.9%. The Gross Domestic Product increased 4.2% in the second quarter of 2018. And yet Trump’s job approval has dipped of late; in a new CNN-SSRS poll released earlier this month, just 36% approved of how Trump was handling the gig. (Trump’s overall job approval was just over 40% in the Real Clear Politics average of polls.)
Why the disconnect? A new piece of data from Gallup provides the answer — or at least an answer. Just 12% of people say that any aspect of the economy is the most important issue facing the country. That’s the lowest score ever recorded for the economy on that question, which Gallup has been asking since 1991 in its current form.
What’s replaced the economy as the most important issue? According to Gallup, it’s “dissatisfaction with government/poor leadership.” In the latest Gallup survey, 29% cited unhappiness with the government and its leaders as the country’s most pressing problem.
That data comes amid increasingly public concerns from smart Republican strategists that the party isn’t getting the credit on the economy it needs to head off a potentially disastrous result at the ballot box in 50 days.
“People think the economy is doing well, but that’s not what they’re voting on — they’re voting on the chaos of the guy in the White House,” GOP pollster Glen Bolger told The New York Times over the weekend.
It doesn’t take a political genius to see the writing on the wall here for Republicans. The 2018 election is shaping up as a straight referendum on a deeply unpopular President. Trump’s inability — and unwillingness — to recede into the background or tone things down for the good of the party ensures that he will continue to overshadow everything else in voters’ minds. And that includes the demonstrable successes of the economy.