Most conservatives believe Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have wrong solutions to the stagnation in wages and job creation that has marked the American economy since 2000. But Trump and Sanders have proven better vote-getters than conservative candidates because, politically speaking, having wrong answers to a real and widely felt evil is better than offering no answers at all.
The last several Republican debates have been remarkable for the virtual absence of discussion of economic policy, other than Trump’s attacks on establishment lobbyists and donors and demands for “better deals” with our trading partners. It’s true that economic-related questioning by the various debate moderators has been minimal, but that doesn’t explain the non-Trump candidates’ failure to inject the issue on their own initiative.
The conservative candidates and their advisers are well aware from all polling, public and private, that the mediocre state of the economy is a predominant issue among voters, even at times when such events as acts of mass terrorism or the opening of a Supreme Court vacancy dominate the headlines and spike voter concern. That the conservative candidates don’t bring up the economy likely reflects a belief that they don’t have persuasive ideas for accelerating wage and job growth, or perhaps that voters are not smart enough to understand the various ideas they may have but fail to highlight.
Effective abdication of the economic issue by conservative candidates has enormous consequences both for the primaries and the general election. When polls ask Republican voters who can best handle the economy, Donald Trump wins in a walk. For example, the last public poll of New Hampshire primary voters that asked this question (CNN/WMUR) gave Trump a 48 percent plurality, with John Kasich and Ted Cruz tied for second at 7 percent each. This poll was taken at a time in mid-January when Trump had lost or was losing his earlier big leads in presidential demeanor and the national security/terrorism cluster. (Public polls are beginning to leave out economic policy questions relating to the GOP candidates, perhaps reflecting the view that the economy is now an uncontested Trump asset.)
It’s a bit early to forecast the role of the economic issue in the general election, but present indicators are no more reassuring for conservatives than Trump’s economic-issue dominance of the primaries. In the generic polling for the House of Representatives, the RealClearPolitics average shows a Democratic edge of 42 to 41 percent. State-of-play analysis of individual races reveals an outlook of net Democratic gains in races for both the House and Senate.
More troubling is the Electoral College forecast issued every few weeks by Moody’s Investor Services.
Jeff Bell is the Policy Director of the American Principles Project.