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Who will voters hold accountable in November for the economic demise?

New research says voters reward and punish incumbent president’s party at every level of government

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President Donald Trump arrives at the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington before meeting with Republican Senators at their weekly luncheon, Tuesday, May 19, 2020. Following Trump are White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner, top left, and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows.

Patrick Semansky, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — President Donald Trump shouldn’t be the only Republican desperate to spark an economic recovery before November’s election.

New research examining wages and election returns over a 50-year period found voters held the incumbent president’s political party accountable “across nearly all levels of government” for local economic performance during an election year.

The study was done before the coronavirus pandemic devastated the U.S. economy two months ago, driving unemployment to Great Depression-era levels. But the findings are a stark reminder of what’s at stake politically if the economy doesn’t start to rebound before election day, from city hall to the White House.

“We think of county and mayoral elections as not really partisan affairs, something that’s not really tied to who the president is,” said study co-author Justin de Benedictis-Kessner, an assistant professor of political science at Boston University. “So, we were surprised to find that these relationships hold based on which party is holding the office of presidency.”

The link surfaced while de Benedictis-Kessner and Chris Warshaw, an assistant professor at George Washington University, were exploring how the economy affected voting compared to other factors. For example, what contributed more to Republicans’ poor performance at the ballot box in 2008: An unpopular war in Iraq or the onset of a recession?

To answer that question, they compared county-level economic conditions with the corresponding election results for local, state and federal offices from 1969 to 2018.They found voters punished and rewarded local and federal office holders belonging to the incumbent president’s party for the economy.

They contend their findings override today’s hyperpartisan climate. “We’d think that the effect of the economy would disappear in more recent years given that polarization is higher, but we don’t really see that,” de Benedictis-Kessner said.

He noted, however, that the impact on vote shares is incremental — a 1% change in wages is associated with a 0.15% change in votes for the incumbent president’s party. So, the findings wouldn’t signal a sea change in a predominantly red state like Utah.

Overcoming the disadvantage

But even slight changes can change election outcomes in a place like Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, where races are always close. And that two-county region is a proven bellwether for a key swing state in this year’s presidential election.

Maybe that’s why Trump visited the area earlier this year. After narrowly favoring Democrat Barack Obama in consecutive presidential elections, the valley’s Northampton County was one of three in the state that flipped in 2016, helping Trump to take Pennsylvania by less than a percentage point. Hillary Clinton won Lehigh County by just 7,634 votes.

“The old saying is as Northampton (County) goes, so goes Pennsylvania in presidential races all the way back to the 1920s, I believe,” said Chris Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in neighboring Lehigh County.

The area is a microcosm of the state, Borick explained, with two urban centers and a large rural region, with a burgeoning suburban population of commuters, who work in New York City and Philadelphia.

During the past decade, Lehigh Valley has transformed its industrial heritage into a diversified $41 billion economy, according to The New York Times. But contrary to de Benedictis-Kessner’s and Warshaw’s findings, Democrats — not Republicans — have gained ground in local elections despite economic growth since 2016.

Borick attributes the Democrats’ success to Trump’s election energizing their base, who outnumber Republicans in the region. He said local party officials recruited stronger candidates and boosted turnout in the 2018 midterm and in local elections in 2017 and 2019.

“Republican turnout wasn’t horrible, but I think the Democratic energy in all of the races has been better,” he said.

De Benedictis-Kessner agreed that political activism can be “a huge deal” in overcoming the impact of economic conditions on the incumbent president’s party in down-ballot races, especially when they are close.

“We test for that, but we looked for general long-term trends and not sudden changes,” he said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have data from 2018, 2019 and 2020 elections that have happened so far, so there’s a lot that could be happening that could look different.”

Taking cues

Another factor that can turn voters’ attention away from the economy is effective campaign messaging, which will play an important role in this year’s election as government officials and economists predict an economic recovery will be a slow process that extends beyond November.

Before the pandemic, Trump focused on the economy as a winning campaign theme. He visited a medical supply distribution center outside of Allentown on May 14 to promote reopening businesses and getting people back to work. Nearly 39 million Americans have lost their jobs in the two months since the coronavirus outbreak hit the U.S., and a recent election model by Oxford Economics predicted the downturn will deal Trump a “historic defeat,” CNN reported.

While Trump’s campaign is hoping for an economic recovery, it appears to be hedging its bets by steering its messaging away from the topic. Last week, the president and his supporters claimed that the prosecution of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, which took place during the current administration, was an illegal effort linked to Joe Biden. This week, Trump and the national GOP unleashed an assault on states’ efforts to expand mail-in voting in the face of the pandemic, conflating absentee balloting with voter fraud.

National campaign messaging can influence local races just as national economic trends do, said de Benedictis-Kessner, who studies local politics and elections.

“If you’re a Republican, even at a local level, I’d say try to talk about something other than the economy and try to distance yourself from national partisan leaders who are getting blamed for the economy,” de Benedictis-Kessner said. “And then if you’re a Democrat, try to talk about the economy, even in a local race.”

Past research has shown that voters effectively “take cues” from one area of performance and extrapolate them to another, he explained. While voters may not know much about the county council member on the ballot, they do know how that candidate’s political party performed on the national stage and will base their decision on that cue.

“At the end of the day, voters are averaging over a lot of concerns, whether that’s at the presidential level or in these down-ballot races,” de Benedictis-Kessner said. “That’s why it was so surprising that despite all the many sources of information people have in elections, that they still rely even a little bit on the economy.”