WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump trails Joe Biden nationally and in most swing states. He trails on questions of character and most policy issues, like the coronavirus, health care and even crime.
Except one — and it's a big one: Americans in battleground states still trust Trump over Biden on the economy, which often tops the list of decisive issues for voters.
The president's edge on the economy has begun to worry some allies of Biden, who say he needs to do more to neutralize it or Trump could use it to nail down swing voters as Election Day nears. His lead persists even with 8.4 percent unemployment and during a recession that Democrats say has been fueled by Trump's mishandling of the pandemic.
"I do think there's work to do here in connecting the dots," said Hari Sevugan, a Democratic campaign veteran who worked for Pete Buttigieg's 2020 campaign and for Barack Obama in 2008. "We need to do a better job of showing that a failure to deal with the pandemic was a failure to look out for the economy."
Many voters don't see the issues as connected: Trump enjoys a net approval rating of 3.5 points on his stewardship of the economy in the RealClearPolitics average while getting a net disapproval score of 15 points on his handling of the coronavirus.
While Trump's economic edge has narrowed in national polls, it remains significant in key states likely to decide the election.
In Wisconsin, Trump enjoys a net approval of 8 points on his handling of the economy in a new poll by Marquette Law School. In Florida, Trump leads Biden by 13 points on which candidate is better on the economy, and in Pennsylvania he leads Biden by 10 points on the same question in a pair of NBC/Marist surveys released this week.
"We've done a really good job saying Trump is incompetent at handling just about every other issue," Sevugan said. "The only thing that is his escape hatch is his handling of the economy. Closing off that lane for Trump does a lot of the work of the election."
Biden steps up his economic message
Biden has delivered two speeches in the last week aimed at diminishing Trump's advantage on the economy. In Wilmington, Delaware, on Sept. 4, he said working Americans continued to suffer because Trump has "mismanaged the COVID crisis." On Wednesday in Warren, Michigan, he assailed the president for failing to keep his promise to bring jobs back to the United States.
A Biden adviser said the campaign has cut into Trump's margin on the economy and plans to keep chipping away at it by conveying to voters that when it comes to economic suffering, "all roads lead back to COVID."
The adviser, who discussed strategy on condition of anonymity, said Biden doesn't necessarily need to win the argument on the economy given his myriad other advantages. The adviser said breaking even or neutralizing the margin would sufficiently weaken the "last pillar" that is "propping" Trump up.
Robert Wolf, a Biden donor who founded the holding company 32 Advisors, said the recovery has been "K-shaped," diverging for "haves and have-nots," as opposed to the "Super-V-shaped" recovery claimed by Trump administration officials.
"Right now, people are focused a little more on COVID and school reopenings and the recent shootings, but I would agree that the overarching theme is going to be about who is best for the economy," he said. "And I am just hopeful that Joe's messaging breaks through."
Trump has touted the 1.4 million U.S. jobs added in August as evidence that the economy is on the rebound. It is an unprecedented scenario — the fastest economic collapse followed by one of the sharpest job recoveries in U.S. history, all in an election year.
"You have a situation where we built the greatest economy in the history of the world. We were forced to close it because of the China plague that came in," Trump said Tuesday in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. "Next year is going to be one of the greatest years in the history of a country economically, unless the wrong person gets in."
The argument — focus on the past and the future, not the present — highlights the reality that as voters begin to cast ballots, the economy is both Trump's most powerful weapon and his most exposed target.
A big part of his task is to convince the small set of persuadable voters in key states that his record before the crisis shows he'll be better for their pocketbooks than Biden. That requires skipping over six months of shareholder joy and Main Street pain.
'Smoke and mirrors'
But voters can hold complicated sets of views. Biden leads on most substantive issues, and a clear majority of voters think he's more empathetic, honest and trustworthy than Trump. And while most Americans disapprove of Trump's handling of the pandemic, they don't blame him for the economic fallout.
"For Democrats to contest it, to break even on the economy, is a total win," said Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster and strategist, who said the issue typically favors the GOP.
Trump's other message — that Biden is controlled by anarchists who are inciting violence and crime in major cities — has fallen flat in polls.
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Liam Donovan, a lobbyist and former GOP operative, said Trump's "appeals to law and order definitely resonate with his base" but probably won't move undecided voters. A positive economic message, however, could be a better closing argument.
"If President Trump is going to win four more years, it is because voters are hopeful about the future, not fearful. After a bumpy 2020, people are looking for some semblance of normalcy or at least hope," he said. "The recent jobs numbers and anticipated GDP data could easily be worked into the argument that things are under control and moving in that direction."
Rick Tyler, a longtime Republican strategist and outspoken Trump critic, said the president's advantage on the economy exists "because Trump has told his story and has repeated that story ad nauseam" that he built the greatest economy in history.
Tyler said Trump inherited a growing economy from the Obama-Biden administration and stole credit for the continued pace of growth. And he said Biden needs to stay focused on puncturing Trump's economic narrative and not get "sucked into" his distractions.
"It's all smoke and mirrors," Tyler said. "It is a false story, but, nevertheless, when there are no facts [being offered] to refute it, it becomes a truth."