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How Would an Economic Downturn Affect the 2020 Democratic Contest?

Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden might benefit most from a darkening 2020 economic outlook. Photo: Getty Images

The big fear of Democrats for much of the Trump era has been that a good economy might lift an otherwise unpopular and unstable president to a second White House term. That fear has abated somewhat after Trump’s failure to convert economic gains — and even relatively high levels of approval for his management of the economy — into overall popularity, as Ron Brownstein has shown compellingly, most recently in July:

[A]bout half (or even slightly more) of voters express support for Trump’s management of the economy, but only 40 to 45 percent of them give him positive marks on his overall performance. That difference could be the tipping point between a coalition that places Trump close to the comfort zone for presidents seeking reelection—support from about half of Americans—and one that leaves him trying to secure a second term with positive marks from a much smaller circle. The only presidents since 1952 who sought reelection with approval ratings below 50 percent—Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H. W. Bush—all lost.

But now, with signs of a slowdown, if not an actual recession, beginning to appear on the horizon, the key question might not be how much the economy helps Trump, but whether it might actually hurt him. And as The Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter observes, a change in the economic climate may also affect the Democratic contest to choose Trump’s 2020 opponent. After talking to several Democratic “strategists,” she concludes that the most likely beneficiaries are Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden:

If 2020 is consumed with talk of a possible recession, the candidate who voters feel is best suited to address it will have the upper hand. In many ways, Warren is well positioned for that moment. She has made the economy — specifically a critique of the current economic structure in this country — the centerpiece of her campaign and her career. She conducted groundbreaking work on personal bankruptcy. During the financial crisis, she was appointed Chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel for the Troubled Asset Relief Program and set up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau….

Biden, of course, can point to his tenure as Vice President during the financial crisis. In 2012, Biden was fond of telling voters that he and Obama should be re-elected because “Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.”  

Which of these already strong candidates might benefit most from a downturn may depend on its pace and severity, and the extent to which Democratic constituencies feel immediate pain. Biden is a reassuring figure, while Warren (and Bernie Sanders) appeals to those who favor deeper, structural economic reforms, even when macroeconomic indicators are positive. Walter suspects less experienced presidential aspirants might suffer by comparison:

Another Democrat I talked with this week, told me that the “biggest loser out of a [possible] recession would be the riskier candidates like Pete Buttigieg.” At a time of economic crisis, said this Democratic strategist, voters are looking for someone with experience that the “37-year-old mayor of South Bend” doesn’t have. 

Economic hard times, of course, might also lead candidates to reconsider or reframe their current platforms and messages, focusing more on short-term economic-relief measures than on ambitious long-term proposals. And while fiscal hawkishness doesn’t have much currency in the Democratic Party right now, a serious drop in revenues might cause some heartburn over the affordability of items like Medicare for All or the Green New Deal.

Even within Democratic ranks, the effect of a downturn on Trump’s popularity could be crucial. If the incumbent really starts to look toasty, Biden’s electability advantage over the rest of the field could suddenly fade.

Obviously, Democrats would love to be in a position to choose the candidate they’d prefer as president rather than simply the one best positioned to beat Trump in a tense cage match. Then again, after what happened in 2016, they might want to take no chances and reach for the political equivalent of a wooden stake. If any candidate is running far above Trump in the polls once the primaries have begun, she or he will have the inside track, even if the economy compounds the incumbent’s many other problems.

How Would a Bad Economy Affect the 2020 Democratic Contest?