Americans are feeling better about the economy, a trend that, if it continues, could bolster President Trump’s prospects for re-election in November.
Forty percent of Americans say they are better off financially than they were a year ago, and just 19 percent say they are worse off, according to a January survey conducted for The New York Times by the online research firm SurveyMonkey. That’s the most positive that respondents have been about the economy in the three years the survey has been conducted.
Views of the economy remain sharply divided along partisan lines, as they have throughout Mr. Trump’s presidency. That could dampen the impact of the economy on the election because many voters may view economic news through the lens of their existing political preferences.
But recent gains in confidence have been particularly strong among the voters most likely to be swayed by economic news: independents. True independents — those who say they do not lean toward either major party — had the biggest jump in confidence in the new Times survey.
In a recent survey from The Washington Post and ABC News, 60 percent of independents said Mr. Trump was doing a good job with the economy, up from 46 percent in September.
The increase in confidence among independents is a recent development and might not last. And some sources tell a different story: A long-running measure of consumer sentiment from the University of Michigan showed on Friday that confidence rose over all in January but fell slightly among independents, although confidence is up sharply among all partisan groups since the fall.
The economy’s performance is swaying some voters. Samuel Knight did not vote for Mr. Trump in 2016 because he and his evangelical Christian family did not like his personal behavior. But he said that if the election were held today, he would pull the lever for Mr. Trump, largely because of the strong economy.
“It’s probably the No. 1 thing that influences my vote,” he said.
Mr. Knight, who runs a start-up in Dallas that makes software for the construction industry, said he was not sure how much credit Mr. Trump deserved for the strong economy. But he said his customers have benefited from the administration’s efforts to ease regulation, and he said he supported the president’s approach on trade, even though it had driven up some costs.
“I think we have the resources to outlast China, hands down,” he said. “I think it’s a smart move.”
Republicans are counting on voters like Mr. Knight to carry Mr. Trump to victory in November. The president routinely promotes strong economic data and the rising stock market in speeches and at rallies.
“Are you better off now than you were three years ago?” he asked on Twitter on Tuesday. “Almost everyone says YES!”
That argument ran into trouble over the summer when turmoil in financial markets and escalating trade tensions with China and other countries led to a surge in news coverage warning of a possible recession. Measures of consumer confidence fell in September and were slow to rebound.
Economic growth cooled last year, according to data released by the Commerce Department on Thursday, and forecasters expect momentum to slow further in 2020. Still, recession fears have ebbed in recent months, as the job market has remained strong and the Federal Reserve has taken steps to prevent damage from the trade war from spreading to the broader economy. Now confidence appears to be rebounding as well.
“There was this dark cloud hanging over us, but a lot of that has lifted,” said Joseph Song, an economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. He noted that wage growth had been picking up among lower-income workers, which could further bolster their economic outlook.
Another factor could also be driving confidence: the stock market.
Mr. Trump frequently cites the rising market as evidence that his policies are working. Experts generally reject that argument: Most Americans own few stocks, and the relationship between stock prices and economic growth is erratic at best. But research has found that the performance of major stock indexes can have a powerful influence on consumers’ outlook.
“It’s something that is very public,” Mr. Song said. “It’s the one broad measure that everyone knows to follow.”
Still, it is not clear whether rising confidence will translate into more votes for Mr. Trump. Economic conditions have traditionally been among the best predictors of presidential elections. But Mr. Trump’s approval rating is significantly weaker than past presidents’ during similar periods of economic strength.
“The fact that we’re not seeing a corresponding uptick in presidential approval, that shows that the question of whether the economy will be less of a factor than in typical elections is still very much an open question,” said Peter K. Enns, who leads the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at Cornell University.
Debi Mazur-Hofmann is an independent voter outside Allentown, Pa. — a part of the country that could prove pivotal in this fall’s election. She said the economy was “amazingly great,” at least based on the stock market and the unemployment rate, and she said Mr. Trump probably deserved some credit.
“He’s done a good job regarding what we see in front of our eyes,” she said. “He did a lot for the people who are working, possibly.”
But Ms. Mazur-Hofmann, 61, doubts the good times will last. She worries about the national debt and fears Mr. Trump will cut Social Security. And even if the economy remains strong, Ms. Mazur-Hofmann said, she will not vote for Mr. Trump in November because of how he treats people.
“I’ll never vote for Trump — never, never, never in a million years,” she said.
Democrats on the campaign trail have not shied away from talking about the economy, although they describe it in very different terms than Mr. Trump does. Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, in particular, have run on policies that they say would reduce inequality and make the economy fairer. Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has pledged to rebuild the middle class.
Liberal groups are urging Democratic candidates to frame economic issues this year in a matter that could counter Mr. Trump’s appeals.
A national poll released this week by Navigator Research, which is overseen by leaders of several progressive organizations, tested voter agreement with various descriptions of the economy. It found that progressive messages scored best when they were phrased around disparities in how the economy was performing for the very rich compared with everyone else. For example: “The gap between the wealthiest Americans and everyone else has never been bigger — we need big, bold changes in Washington to unrig the economic system so working people can get ahead.”
Democratic arguments are resonating with some voters. Rafael Corrales, 24, recently moved back home to Omaha, in part because rents in Seattle, where he had been living, climbed too high. An independent voter and the first member of his family to graduate from college, Mr. Corrales is now looking for work.
His parents, a construction worker and a teacher’s aide, have not seen a raise in years. Health insurance premiums keep going up. His friends are drowning in student debt.
“Many of my friends have thousands of dollars in loans, and they still don’t have a job in their field and they’re working in a grocery store,” he said. “Maybe for people who do have money in the stock market or have higher earnings, it has improved. But for the average American, I don’t think it has improved at all.”
About the survey: The data in this article came from an online survey of 2,969 adults conducted by the polling firm SurveyMonkey from Jan. 6 to 12. The company selected respondents at random from the nearly three million people who take surveys on its platform each day. Responses were weighted to match the demographic profile of the population of the United States. The survey has a modeled error estimate (similar to a margin of error in a standard telephone poll) of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points, so differences of less than that amount are statistically insignificant.
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