Americans are feeling better about the economy. Or at least Republicans are.
A combination of low unemployment, peppier economic growth and a record-setting stock market has pushed measures of consumer confidence to their highest levels since the dot-com boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s. That optimism is spilling over into spending, as well: Retail sales rose in May at their fastest pace in six months.
But the strong economy hasn’t overcome an even more potent force: partisanship. Sixty percent of Republicans believe they are better off now than they were a year ago, compared with 17 percent of Democrats, according to a survey conducted in early June for The New York Times by the online polling firm SurveyMonkey.
The same partisan split appears in the survey’s broader measure of consumer confidence, which is based on five questions about respondents’ spending plans and views of the economy. Republicans are optimistic and becoming more so. Democrats are pessimistic and have seen barely any improvement in their outlook despite the steadily improving economic data.
The pattern is a mirror image of the picture before President Donald Trump took office. Back then, it was Democrats who were far more positive about the economy, a situation that reversed almost immediately upon Trump’s inauguration.
The economy has made steady progress since Trump took office, with the unemployment rate recently dropping to 3.8 percent, its lowest level since 2000. Most economists see that improvement as a continuation of gains made under former President Barack Obama, although they say recent tax cuts and spending increases could provide a short-term lift to economic growth over the next few years.
Republicans are counting on the strong economy to buoy them in congressional elections this fall. Party leaders in the House and Senate celebrate every new measure of economic news, and have been quick to claim credit for it.
“This economy is on a roll, there is just no two ways about it,” Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said this month. “This economic momentum — it doesn’t happen by accident. We don’t just fall into this stuff. We’ve worked hard to create an economic environment where this kind of growth is possible.”
No one tries to claim more credit than Trump, who frequently touts the strength of the recovery on Twitter.
He may be getting through to voters. A majority of Americans — 56 percent — give Trump at least some credit for the improving economy. Joe McGrath, a sales manager for a lighting manufacturer outside Philadelphia, said that by cutting taxes and loosening regulations, Trump and Republicans in Congress had “really turned American business and the American economy loose.”
A conservative Republican, McGrath, 56, said that he didn’t support Trump during the presidential primaries in 2016, and that he still didn’t always like Trump’s approach. But on policy, McGrath said, Trump won him over by following through on the promises he made during the campaign.
Republicans overwhelmingly attribute the economy’s progress to Trump. Democrats, perhaps unsurprisingly, are likelier to say Obama had more to do with it. But nearly a third of Democrats say Trump has earned at least some credit.
Nick Holland, a 27-year-old Democrat living in Atlanta, said there was no question that the economy was doing well, adding that this was at least in part because of Trump.
“He definitely deserves some credit,” Holland said. “I definitely didn’t vote for him, but this is why people did, because he’s a businessman.”
Still, Holland said Obama had probably played a bigger role in setting the economy on firm footing. And he said he was unlikely to support Republicans in the fall elections because other concerns, such as police and school shootings, outweighed economic issues for him.
History suggests that the state of the economy is rarely a deciding factor in midterm elections. The president’s party has lost seats in years when the economy was humming, such as 1966, and gained them in years when it was weak, such as 2002. Political scientists have found that the presidential approval rating is a much better predictor of how the president’s party will fare in the midterms.
Politics isn’t the only factor in people’s views of the economy. Adults from higher-earning households are more confident, regardless of partisanship. (Still, low-income Republicans are more optimistic, on average, than even wealthy Democrats.) Men also tend to be more confident than women, and whites are more confident than members of minority racial and ethnic groups.
There has been improvement among virtually all groups, however. Confidence among African-Americans is the highest since Obama was president. Trump has repeatedly pointed to low black unemployment as evidence that his economic policies are benefiting groups that often face discrimination in the labor market.
Steven Saenz, who is Hispanic, graduated from college in the teeth of the recession, and went to architecture school in part to avoid entering the weak labor market. Even so, it took him nine months after completing his degree to find a job, and two more years to feel stable.
Now, however, Saenz has a good job at a Dallas architecture firm, and last year bought his first home with his wife. Still, Saenz, 32, said he and his wife watched their spending closely.
“Just being a product of graduating in the recession, I tend to focus more on saving,” he said.
Ever since they passed their $1.5 trillion tax-cut bill in December, Republicans have predicted that voters would come to love it. They were buoyed in February when, according to a previous survey, the law briefly earned the support of a majority of Americans. But the surge in support has stalled, and the law now evenly divides Americans, with 48 percent in favor and 47 percent opposed. There is no sign in the polling that the law will help Republicans court independent voters, who oppose the law by 54 percent to 40 percent, in the fall.
But the law appears to have helped Republicans’ election prospects in one important way: It appears to have made Republican voters feel better about the economy.
The share of Americans who say they and their families are better off financially than they were a year ago has jumped since December, to 36 percent from 29 percent. That jump is almost entirely concentrated among Republicans, and it coincides with the signing of the tax cuts. The improved sentiment could give Republican voters a reason to turn out in November — to reward the lawmakers they see as having given them a financial lift.
“It’s clear that the tax bill did have a significant impact on Republican confidence,” said Laura Wronski, a research scientist at SurveyMonkey. Nancy Steele, a retired psychologist near Allentown, Pennsylvania, said she saw more cynical motives in the tax bill.
“They were striving to give lots of people a tax break hoping it would help them in the November elections,” she said.
Steele, a Democrat, said she was concerned about projections that the tax law would add hundreds of billions of dollars to the national debt over the next decade. Obama also added to the debt, she said, but unlike Trump, he inherited a financial crisis.
“Going that much in debt just to buy votes this coming November, I don’t think, is such a good thing,” she said.
Most Democrats agree with Steele. Nearly 70 percent say they believe the tax cuts will add to the deficit. Only 22 percent of Republican voters say they believe that. A plurality of them — 37 percent — say the tax law will actually reduce the deficit.
Those voters are echoing Trump administration officials, such as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who have predicted the tax cuts will more than pay for themselves. Economists roundly disagree with them. No detailed, independent analysis of the law has concluded that it will avoid adding to the deficit, let alone reduce it. The congressional Joint Committee on Taxation estimates that the law will add $1 trillion to deficits over the course of a decade, even after accounting for additional economic growth it might spur.
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