Don’t Assume Trump Is Doomed
Now that scandal has claimed one scalp from the Trump administration, it’s easy to think that the dominoes will just keep falling until Trump is finally impeached or forced to leave office. One betting site has Trump finishing his first term in office at even money. I think these odds are wrong. I’ll go further — I still, even now, think that Trump has a better chance of winning a second term than not finishing his first term.
Political scandals do hurt the president’s approval ratings. And the collaboration between Trump’s team and Russia could be a doozy. But there’s one factor that has a much bigger influence on presidential approval: the economy.
The president does not have much control over the economy. But the economy controls the president. As Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels detail in their book Democracy for Realists, real disposable income growth in the two quarters preceding an election are a huge predictor of election outcomes. But it’s not only during elections — the economy influences approval ratings in between elections, too. If the economy improves over the next four years — and it certainly could — then the improvement will redound to Trump’s political benefit, regardless of what he’s done in office.
Many look to Richard Nixon as a precedent, not only because his racist politics foreshadowed Trump’s own, but because he is the only president who has been forced from office by scandal. The main obstacle to this same story playing out for Trump is that Democrats controlled Congress under Nixon, whereas Republicans control Congress today. But it is true that Nixon’s approval ratings cratered in ‘73–’74 as the Watergate scandal developed:
However it’s also true that the economy tanked at the same time (note that these graphs are of percentage rates of change):
To test whether the economy or the scandal is more important, we’d need a scandal that happens while the economy booms. Something like the Iran-Contra affair, which developed over the last part of 1986 and first part of 1987, culminating with President Reagan delivering a national address taking responsibility in March of 1987, and Congressional investigations for the rest of that year. Reagan did indeed suffer a large drop in approval when the scandal first appeared:
But as you can see from the graph, by the time Reagan left office a couple of years later (to be succeeded by his vice president George H. W. Bush), his approval rating had entirely recovered. Why? Here’s real disposable income during that time:
Of course a sample size of two doesn’t prove anything. And even with a sample size of infinity, it’s difficult to separate correlation and causation. But in their book, Achen and Bartels do study exogenous variation in income — that is, variation that could not be caused by anything having to do with politics — and show that it does indeed influence vote share for the incumbent. It’s reasonable to assume the same thing holds for approval ratings, and these two examples support that hypothesis.
I don’t mean to suggest that we should just leave our political fate to the whims of the economy. Quite the opposite. I mean instead to show that it’s foolhardy to assume that the momentum of scandal will eventually topple Trump of its own accord. Getting Trump out of office will require constant, prolonged pressure, attention, and organization — to get as many Democrats elected to the House as possible in 2018, and then to vote Trump out of office in 2020. You can’t just nudge this boulder down the hill. You have to take a hammer to it, breaking off piece after piece until it finally stops being a boulder.