Trump's Economic Record May Be Enough To Beat Biden, but Not DeSantis

When Donald Trump announced his 2024 campaign for the presidency on Tuesday night, he had one simple question for voters: do you remember what the economy was like when I was President?

On the surface, it seems this message should be a winner. After all, 54% of Americans polled by our team at Redfield & Wilton Strategies on Thursday say they approve of the way the former President had performed on the economy, against just 31% who disapprove.

Crucially, 50% think Joe Biden has performed worse on the economy than his predecessor, outnumbering those who think he has performed better by 19 percentage points. While foreign policy, immigration, and policing also feature in Trump's campaign platform, the economy stands out as his key strength should he face Biden in 2024. In fact, a majority of those who voted for Trump in 2020 cite it as his best policy issue.

If the economy fails to materially improve between now and November 2024, thus remaining a central concern for American voters, our current voting intention polling could turn out to be reality. This would find Donald Trump virtually tied with Joe Biden for the popular vote and therefore likely leading on the electoral college.
But long before that point, Donald Trump must first win the Republican nomination. Here, he will face a more challenging situation than he would in a rematch against Joe Biden.

U.S. President Donald Trump introduces Florida Governor
U.S. President Donald Trump introduces Florida Governor Ron DeSantis during a homecoming campaign rally at the BB&T Center on November 26, 2019 in Sunrise, Florida. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

To be sure, like Biden, Donald Trump is the overwhelming favorite to win his party's nomination, per our latest polling. He leads Ron DeSantis 63% to 25% among likely Republican primary voters, with Mike Pence a distant third at 4%. If the primary were to be a direct contest against DeSantis, Trump would still win twice as many votes as the Florida Governor.

Yet, being the favorite is uncomfortable territory, a place where one can easily be caught on the defensive. In his announcement speech on Tuesday night, Trump tried to frame himself and his supporters as Davids fighting against various Goliaths. In the upcoming Republican Primary, however, he will be Goliath.

To win this contest, Donald Trump cannot merely look backwards and refer to the state of the economy a few years ago. Unlike Biden, his Republican opponents will have no poor economic record to which Trump can contrast his own. Whatever Trump has done, they will say they can do better—and who will be able to say they are wrong?

In July 2015, during his daring, opening speech announcing his first bid for the presidency, Trump declared, rightfully, that the unemployment rate was "a statistic that's full of nonsense."

Indeed, while the unemployment rate had steadily declined under President Obama from its 10% peak in October 2009 back to roughly where it was before the Great Recession, the Labor Force Participation Rate—a measure of how many are in the workforce to begin with—had dropped in almost equal proportion.

In simple terms, the unemployed who had given up and stopped looking for any job whatsoever were simply no longer being counted as part of the workforce. Behind the positive picture the decline in unemployment seemingly depicted, Americans were falling through the cracks. Promising redemption to these 'forgotten' Americans was critical in bringing a total outsider with no government experience into the White House.

But then Donald Trump became President, specifically a President with a track record to defend. When making the case for re-election four years later, President Trump pointed towards nothing other than... the unemployment rate. A statistic that was initially described as "nonsense" served—and now serves again—as the cornerstone of Donald Trump's bid to win another term as President.

Donald Trump Special Counsel Investigation Refuse Participation
Former President Donald Trump is pictured at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida on November 8, 2022. Trump said on Friday that he would refuse to "partake" in newly-appointed Special Counsel Jack Smith's investigation into his alleged criminal actives. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In the end, though it did stop shrinking and even increased slightly before February 2020, the Labor Force Participation Rate still remained well below its previous peaks. The dramatically surging stock market, a favorite point of reference for Trump, only widened the gap between the haves and the have nots. Worse still, drug deaths, initially from an opioid epidemic then from a dramatic increase in the distribution of fentanyl, rose significantly. As much as the unemployment rate went down, how much did things really get better for the forgotten men and women of America?

To Trump's economic record, therefore, an ambitious candidate like Ron DeSantis, now above 20% for the first time in our Republican primary polling (or even Donald Trump himself, if he were so bold) would say, "Good, but not yet good enough."

Whichever candidate makes this future-oriented argument most convincingly will win the Republican Primary.

Philip van Scheltinga is Director of Research at Redfield & Wilton Strategies.