Columnists Earl Ofari Hutchinson Opinion

THE HUTCHINSON REPORT: Economy doesn’t always determine the president

If one believes that three Moody Analytic variables — the stock market, employment and key economic measures such as gas prices — predict a presidential election outcome, then it’s over before the first vote is cast. President Donald Trump will soundly defeat any Democrat in 2020.

In fact, not only will he win reelection big, but in one of the analytics he’ll win the Electoral College in a landslide. He has supposedly won already because the ancient saying “it’s the economy, stupid” is so etched in stone that no sitting president can be ousted if the economy is clicking on all cylinders. Trump has certainly made that point over and over and he’ll keep making it all the way up to and through November 2020.

It’s the economy, stupid, that wins or loses presidential elections. But is it?

The supposed political truism cropped up with a vengeance in the 2008 presidential election. Voters were supposedly so furious at outgoing President George W. Bush for causing massive plant closings, farm failures, corporate bungling, fraud and corruption, the housing collapse, soaring gas prices and the wholesale flight of jobs to the far corners of the planet, that all a Democratic presidential contender had to do to win was pass the breath test on Election Day.

That presidential contender then was Barack Obama and his hope and change slogan played hard on the economic horrors of Bush and the Republican Party.

It wasn’t that simple. In a look at how multiple presidents fared since 1948 when the economy hit the skids or appeared to skid, the scorecard for presidents winning and losing because of economic woes is mixed. Some were beaten and some beat back their challengers.

It came down to whether voters really perceived that their economic pain would show no sign of a cure if they kept the incumbent in office. Both Republican and Democratic presidents won and lost during those years, even when there was widespread public unease over the economy and many voters believed things wouldn’t get any better.

The presidents who won had to do one crucial thing in the face of rising unemployment, recession, inflation and public grumbles. They had to assure a majority of voters that things would and could get better with them if they stayed in the White House and their opponent couldn’t do any better. 

The combination of real and voter perceived economic woe helped sink Presidents Gerald Ford in 1976 and George H.W. Bush in 1992. It helped and hurt Jimmy Carter.

It helped when the economy went bad for Ford in 1976, allowing Carter to win a narrow victory. It didn’t help him four years later when he lost to Ronald Reagan.

It helped Obama in 2008 and it helped Trump in 2016.

The trick is that voters must perceive things will get worse in which case the challenger to a sitting president has to reinforce public dread that things will indeed get worse.

When the economy went bad for Carter, Reagan won in 1980 in a near landslide. The exact reverse was true for Reagan and Bill Clinton. Reagan’s supply side economics and big tax cuts were credited with igniting a mid-1980s economic boom. Clinton’s tax hike, deficit reduction program and investment stimulus program, was credited with turning a record deficit into a record surplus and adding millions of new jobs to the rolls.

As Reagan’s vice president, the senior Bush benefited from his economic policies. In 1988, he won the election. Four years later, when things turned sour, he lost.

Bush’s history did not repeat itself with his son in the 2004 election. Even though unemployment was high, and economic growth, as Democrats gleefully noted, was slower than during Clinton’s second term, the Clinton bar was impossibly high to match anyway. By all economic standards, his economic track record was the best of any of the last five presidents.

Even by his inflated standard, and despite the industrial erosion in some sections of the country, during the last two years of Bush’s first term, overall unemployment and economic growth still improved slightly.

That was the powerful spur that Bush used to spin news, even bad economic news, as a gain. He solemnly pledged there would be more economic goodies for voters if he was reelected. If the economic negatives had hit harder in his last two years, as it did with his father, it would have been Democrat John Kerry’s ticket to the White House.

Trump is doing everything he can to take that possibility off the table for whoever his Democratic challenger is. However, the same political rules still apply, the economy is and will continue to be good, but for whom?

With the gap bulging bigger by the day in income and wealth inequality, Trump’s manufactured trade squabbles and mixed signals about a possible big recessionary downturn looming, the perception of a coming bad economy on another Trump watch could spell doom for Trump.

He doesn’t believe it, and neither does Moody’s. But history has shown it’s not always the economy that decides a White House winner.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of “Who Can Beat Trump? America’s Choice 2020.” He also is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One and the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.