This is a guest post by Heather Hodges, Julian Gottlieb, Lisa Argyle, Skylar Covich, and E.G. Gary. It is based on their recent article in Electoral Studies.
In the upcoming months, voters will hear the policy plans presented by presidential candidates. Perhaps more importantly, they will hear attacks on the character of past Presidents and current presidential candidates (see the New York Times compilation and Prof. Martin Wattenberg’s post in Presidential Power). Presidential candidates seek to convince voters that their opponent does not have the administrative competence or moral character to enact an economic plan or to lead the nation in other policy areas. Candidate Trump’s branding of Secretary Clinton as ‘Crooked Hillary’ is a glaring example of this technique.
An extension of this strategy is to link the incumbent party’s presidential nominee to the economic failings of the current administration, which is evident in the way President Obama’s record has been evaluated thus far. A recent Politico article notes President Obama’s mixed economic record. GDP growth has been slow so far this year, which usually benefits the challenging party in a presidential election, but the New York Times points out that the numbers are not as grim as in 1980 or 2008. The unemployment rate is now at pre-recession levels before President Obama took office, but labor force participation has also fallen and wage growth has been slow.
Donald Trump has a unique opportunity to link Hillary Clinton to previous Democratic presidents, given her prominent role in health care policy reform as FLOTUS in her husband’s administration and her service as Secretary of State in the Obama administration, where she embraced his administration’s foreign policy agenda and many aspects of his domestic policy agenda as well. To exploit his GOP base’s disdain for last two Democratic presidents, in his nomination acceptance speech Trump placed blame squarely on the Obama administration for the sluggish recovery.
Although we cannot directly speak to how voters will assess President Obama’s performance in office and the impact this may have on the two current candidates, our research suggests that fluctuations in personal and national economic conditions affect voters’ assessments of presidential character, which in turn influences their evaluations of policy performance, not just in the case of economic policy, but across the policy spectrum.
Our research, recently published in Electoral Studies, looked at whether or not the actual performance of the economy, as well as voters’ subjective evaluation of the economy, affect assessments of the president’s character. We argued that “good” economic outcomes would be linked to positive assessments of the president’s character, regardless of whether the trait has an obvious connection to economic leadership. For example, a president of dubious character who presided over a growing, healthy economy might receive positive evaluations of their moral character or leadership abilities.
From 1984 on voters have been asked how well various traits, such as moral and intelligent, describe the president. We paired these assessments with economic indicators (ex. the Consumer Price Index, Gross Domestic Product, Barro’s Misery Index, and subjective retrospective and prospective economic circumstances) to see how national and personal economic conditions affect these evaluations.
Character Trait Evaluations from 1984 – 2008
Using both objective economic indicators and subjective evaluations of economic performance, we demonstrate that voters’ stated presidential character traits are correlated with the state of the economy. Presidents are often held accountable for the state of the economy, but voters do not evaluate presidents’ capability as economic managers and their personal characteristics as separate inputs into an overall evaluation of presidential approval. Instead, how well the economy is doing several months before the election has a direct impact on how voters view the personal traits of incumbent presidents.
Change in Evaluations as National Economy Improves
Change in Evaluations as Personal Economic Conditions Improve
As shown in the above figures, voters are more likely to give positive evaluations and less likely to have negative evaluations of presidential traits as the economy improves. This is the case whether the national or one’s personal economic conditions are improving.
Also, as you can see, the relationship between economic performance and presidential character exists across the partisan spectrum. Although the effect is strongest among members of the president’s party, even opposing partisans give higher ratings of the incumbent president’s character traits when the economy is growing.
The economy has long been shown to be a powerful predictor of economic elections. One mechanism by which this voting cue functions is through the attribution of positive personal traits to presidents who oversee economic growth.
In this election, the character and trustworthiness of both major party presidential candidates have been called into question by voters of all stripes. Although Candidate Trump continues to hammer on the economy as a major concern, the most recent jobs report was positive, boasting a low unemployment rate, and while it is not out of the question, the economy is unlikely to spiral downward in the next few months (as emphasized on FiveThirtyEight). Also, President Obama enjoys relatively strong approval ratings for a lame duck president and confidence in his command of the economy is also stable after a slow, but steady recovery during his tenure in office. This presents an opportunity for Secretary Clinton, as she can potentially overcome perceived ‘character deficits’ by promoting her strong working relationship w/ President Obama & confidently campaigning on her effort to extend President Obama’s economic gains in a way that John McCain could not rely on President Bush’s record during the 2008 campaign. Yet, this strategy only works in so far as President Obama’s economy holds or improves between now and November. If the economy weakens objectively, or subjectively in the eyes of voters, look for Candidate Trump to double down on character attacks against Secretary Clinton and her complicity in the Obama Administration’s economic mishaps.