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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Voter Perceptions of the Economy vs. Statistics a Problem for Dems

Some insights from “Why Bidenomics Isn’t Working for Biden:The economy is improving, but Americans aren’t giving Biden credit for it,” a pundit chat at FiveThirtyEight:

Monica Potts: To start at the beginning, Biden inherited a really weird economy. The COVID-19 shutdowns caused a severe and dramatic recession, but then the economy started to bounce back. But people’s behavior had also changed. More people were working from home and moving, they had cash to spend and supply chains were slow to restart. So Americans were generally sour on the economy from the time he took office.

The recovery was afflicted by super-high inflation, as you noted at the beginning, Nathaniel, and a lot of what the Biden administration has done on economic policy is the kind of slow-moving, behind-the-scenes policymaking that voters don’t really notice. Even though inflation is cooling, prices are still much higher than they were before the pandemic; borrowers are still seeing much higher interest rates; etc. So I think a lot of it is that Americans are generally unhappy with the new normal we find ourselves in.

gelliottmorris: I think that last point is a really good one, Monica. The share of people telling pollsters that the broader economic situation is poor is still around the highest it’s been since 2018. At first, that seems hard to square with the rosy economic indicators we talked about. But I think it’s possible that people just have longer-term memories about economic growth and remember a time when prices were meaningfully lower.

Lots of the discussion on this topic is pegged to tracking annual change in the consumer price index or job market or what have you. But if you take a longer view, for a lot of families, things are just permanently more expensive now. Even if their wages are up, I doubt they enjoy spending 15 percent more at the grocery store than they were before the pandemic. And it will take a while for those memories to fade.

Ameliatd adds, “I’m not sure voters were ever going to give Biden credit for an improving economy, especially because the inflation increase happened under his watch. It’s not like he can come in and say, “Look at this mess my predecessor left for me.”

I think Potts hits on a core problem in noting “Even though inflation is cooling, prices are still much higher than they were before the pandemic.” Voters are not impressed that the rate of “inflation is cooling.” It’s more about perception of their family’s economic realities than national statistics. To amplify Morris’s point, not many workers got a 15 percent pay raise during the last year to cover the new normal.

The covid checks voters received during the pandemic have been spent. Here comes a lot of stressful kitchen table budget discussions. Student loan debt outlays will be back soon. The strategic petroleum reserve is looking low, and let’s not count on the Saudis, the petroleum industry or Putin to do Biden any favors. It won’t be pretty.

Some of this downer scenario will be offset by fears among moderate voters in swing states about eradicating reproductive rights and/or the very real possibility that U.S. democracy will become completely dysfunctional if Trump wins, setting up decades of angry polarization and authoritarian rule.

It appears that a patriotism vs. pocketbook conflict may be emerging for 2024 voters. It would be folly for Democrats to bet the ranch on patriotism.

It’s possible that enough voters will get used to sticker shock at the gas pumps and meat counters a year from now, and their memories of better prices will fade away. But fading possibilities are not a solid foundation for campaign strategy.

Admittedly, all of this is close to the bleakest possible scenario. And there is a fair chance that the opposite will happen, good will win the day and Democracy will be preserved for future generations. It’s also possible that the election outcome will fall somewhere between disaster and a newly-functional democracy.

As for the persuasion vs. turnout choices for Democratic campaign strategy, there may not be enough time for the former to have an impact in 2024. But make no mistake, for Democrats, it’s all hands on deck for what may be the most pivotal election in America’s history.

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