The economy is robust, consumers are spending and Republicans are still increasingly at risk of losing their grip on Congress.
The headline numbers should be good news for the party in power: a report Friday showed U.S. economic growth accelerated in the second quarter by 4.1%, the fastest since 2014, unemployment is at 4% and the S&P 500 Index, up about 5.9% this year, is less than one month away from overtaking the longest bull run ever.
Yet by some political yardsticks — polls, fundraising, voter turnout — the data favors Democrats over the GOP in the November congressional elections. Among the reasons are the uneven spread of the prosperity, problems with advancing the Republicans’ legislative agenda, and President Donald Trump.
“We’ve never had such a large gap between voters’ approval of the president and their views on the economy,” said David Wasserman, House editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, who forecasts Democrats will gain between 20 and 35 seats in November elections. “And their views on the president are driven by not only the economy but also his temperament and behavior.”
Trump’s approval ratings have been mired in a narrow range since he took office and it stood at just 42% in Gallup’s most recent weekly tracking poll. Since 1970, the president’s party has lost an average of 33 House seats when the chief executive’s approval rating is below 50%. Democrats need a net gain of 23 seats to win control of the House, though their path to a Senate majority is much more challenging.
Wasserman is among several independent analysts who say Democratic prospects to take the House have ticked up in recent weeks. On Thursday, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California warned his GOP colleagues that they need to step up the pace of fundraising and campaigning, and that even secure Republican incumbents can’t take their re-elections for granted.
Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican, said Friday in an interview on Fox News’s “Fox & Friends” that while there is some good economic and other news for congressional Republicans, they still face tough questions about whether they’ve kept promises to voters.
“We’ve certainly helped with the taxes. But all of those other things that we told the American people we would accomplish, we haven’t done,” Jordan said. “Repeal Obamacare, reform welfare, build the border security wall and fix our immigration system, and control spending — we haven’t done that.”
Trump seized on economic growth data, calling it “amazing” and “very sustainable.” He credited his policies, including the biggest tax overhaul since the Reagan era, and was echoed by Republican lawmakers and their allies.
The likelihood is nevertheless that the pace of growth will slow as the effects of tax cuts fades, companies pull back in the face of foreign tariffs and the Federal Reserve raises interest rates further. The next report on the economy’s growth, for the third quarter, will come Oct. 26, just 11 days before the election.
On the surface, the GDP data shows that consumers have deeper pockets than previously thought. Consumer spending, which comprises 70% of the economy, grew at a higher-than-forecast pace of 4% in the second quarter.
While corporations benefit from tax cuts that contributed to profit in the first half of the year, wages haven’t budged much. Hourly wage growth climbed only 2.7% in June from the prior year, stuck in the 2% range following the 2008 financial crisis. They were as high as 3.6% in 2007.
But real earnings, which are adjusted for inflation, have stagnated and even fallen for bottom earners. Wages in the top quintile rose to $48 an hour in 2016, 27% higher than 1979, while upper-middle earners made 12% more to $27 an hour. But wages for Americans in the bottom fifth fell in that period, according to Brookings Institution calculations of Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
Moreover, economic growth isn’t evenly distributed by geography. In metropolitan statistical areas associated with 15 House districts where Democrats have a chance to flip a seat from Republican control, there was zero or negative job growth between January 2017 when Trump took office and May, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics Metropolitan Area Employment and Unemployment report.
The disparities are seen in the very different economic messages being delivered by Republican and Democratic candidates and in the reaction from voters.
In upstate New York, which has been in economic decline since before the Trump administration, some voters say the region has continued to struggle.