Trump's lead over Biden on the economy has vanished

President Donald Trump is no longer winning on his signature issue: the economy.

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Matt Egan
, CNN Business
CNN — President Donald Trump is no longer winning on his signature issue: the economy.

In a CNN poll released Tuesday, Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden were tied among registered voters at 49% apiece on the question of who would handle the economy better. Among likely voters, Biden gets 50%, compared with 48% for Trump, a statistical dead heat.

It's not an anomaly either. The two candidates were essentially tied on the issue in the last CNN poll taken August 28 - September 1.

The findings represent a sharp drop in support for Trump in what had previously been his greatest strength. In May, 54% of registered voters said Trump would handle the economy better, compared with 42% for Biden.

The fact that Trump's lead over Biden on the economy has vanished underscores the fragile state of the recovery from the coronavirus recession.

"People are still worried about evictions, foreclosures and small businesses going under," said Greg Valliere, chief US policy strategist at AGF Investments. "For an awful lot of people, there is still anxiety that the economy has not come all the way back and may not for some time."

Unemployment remains elevated

At 7.9%, the unemployment rate is the highest it has ever been ahead of a presidential election since the government started tracking the monthly rate in 1948. Although the United States rapidly recovered more than half the jobs lost during the pandemic, the recovery is losing momentum.

The number of unemployed people who permanently lost their old jobs hit a seven year-high of 3.8 million in September. What many had hoped were furloughs or temporary job losses are becoming permanent.

Parts of the US economy are enjoying a fast recovery. In particular, the housing market is booming as Millennials and city dwellers venture into the suburbs and thanks to record-low mortgage rates.

Yet large swaths of the economy are still hurting -- and may continue to until a vaccine is widely available. Leisure activities like eating at restaurants, staying at hotels and flying remain below pre-pandemic levels. Cineworld, the second largest cinema group in the world, warned it will suspend operations at all of its theaters in the United States and United Kingdom.

CNN Business' Economic Recovery Dashboard shows the US economy is only 80% as strong as it was before the pandemic. In other words, it's got a long road back.

Against that backdrop, Trump's poll numbers on the economy have stumbled.

The CNN poll found that 48% of voters approve of the way Trump is handling the economy, while 48% disapprove. In the previous CNN poll, Trump had 50% approval on this issue, compared with 45% disapproval.

Goldman Sachs: Blue wave could boost the economy

The fact that Biden has closed the gap against Trump on the economy suggests the president's warnings of economic doom if he loses are not working.

Trump warned in an all-caps tweet Monday that Democrats would "shut our economy and jobs down" if they win in November. Yet some on Wall Street are telling their clients the opposite.

Goldman Sachs has concluded that a Democratic sweep would mean a faster economic recovery because it would "sharply raise the probability" of a fiscal stimulus package of at least $2 trillion. The bank also pointed to Biden's longer-term spending plans on infrastructure, climate, health care and education.

Likewise, Moody's Analytics found that Biden's economic proposals, if enacted, would create 7.4 million more jobs than Trump's would.

"Their plans couldn't be more different," Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics, wrote in a CNN Business perspectives piece. "Based on our analysis, Biden has it right, and Trump has it wrong."

Bragging about the stock market

Trump has repeatedly pointed to the booming stock market as proof of his economic success. The S&P 500 has surged by a staggering 53% since the lows on March 23. The Nasdaq, home to pandemic winners like Amazon and Apple, is up 65% since late March.

But some argue Trump's obsession with the stock market is backfiring because many Americans can't feel the boom on Wall Street.

Rich households have far more skin in the stock market, meaning that when stocks go up, the gains disproportionately go to the wealthiest families. As of the first quarter of 2020, the wealthiest 10% of US households owned 87% of all stocks and mutual funds, according to the Federal Reserve. Black households owned just 1.6% of stocks and mutual funds, according to the Fed.

"Bragging about the stock market could actually make some people resentful," said AGF's Valliere. "There's an elite class that has done quite well in the markets, but that prosperity is not spread to voters at large."

The prediction markets suggest there is growing confidence that Biden will defeat Trump. A bettor can pay 65 cents on PredictIt to win $1 if Biden wins the White House. It only costs 40 cents to bet that Trump will win. The 25-cent gap between Biden and Trump has more than doubled since late September.

Of course, it's important to note that the election is still four weeks away -- an eternity in the rapidly moving Trump era.

Valliere pointed out that the notorious Access Hollywood tape that many thought doomed Trump's candidacy in 2016 wasn't released until October 7. And Trump still managed to recover and pull off an upset that few in Washington or Wall Street saw coming.

Still, Valliere said the latest developments and polling have only given him confidence in the outcome.

"I may have to revise my prediction from just a week ago that Biden would win narrowly," Valliere said. "Biden could win comfortably."

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