At this point, Donald Trump has only the thinnest of reeds to cling to in his effort to prevent his campaign from sinking out of sight. It’s not the fantastical claim that he’s going to capture the African-American vote. He’s not; especially not if he keeps doing things like this. It’s not the myth of “missing voters” who will magically appear to carry him to victory in November. And it’s certainly not the ongoing effort to convince voters that, against all evidence, Hillary Clinton is secretly battling a deadly illness.
It’s the economy, stupid.
Trump is the candidate of the frustrated and the angry who feel that they have been left behind by a country and an economy that simply doesn’t look the way it used to. And the news Friday that the Commerce Department had downgraded the already dismal second quarter GDP numbers from an annualized 1.2 percent to 1.1 percent is the sort of thing that, if he had the self-control to avoid unnecessary distractions, he would be hammering on night and day.
“The downward revision to second-quarter growth was primarily a reflection of weaker state and local government spending, and inventories,” wrote Steve Murphy, U.S. economist for Capital Economics. “On the bright side, real consumption growth was revised up to show a 4.4% annualized gain, from 4.2% in the first estimate. Otherwise, the details of the report suggest the weakness in the second quarter may have been even more pronounced than the expenditure-based GDP measure implies. Gross domestic income, an alternative measure of economic activity, increased by a muted 0.2% annualized.”
The state of the economy is, at best, confusing to many well-known economists. A strong job market suggests there ought to be increased economic growth as well, but the GDP numbers remain stubbornly sluggish.
Big picture: The growth statistics right now are deeply puzzling.— Justin Wolfers (@JustinWolfers) August 26, 2016
GDP/GDI data suggests a sputtering recovery; employment says it's roaring
To be fair, there is substantial debate over whether the disconnect between things like worker productivity and job numbers are actually real. In a recent paper, Kemal Derviş and Zia Qureshi of the Brookings Institution lay out the case that we might simply be measuring productivity incorrectly.
But that sort of economic arcana isn’t compelling to the vast majority of voters in the same way as a report showing economic growth hovering at around 1 percent.
Of course, nobody really expects Trump to put forward substantive economic proposals to address slow growth. His policies, such as they are, are a mishmash of trickle-down theory and old-fashioned tax breaks that help the rich far more than the poor.
In fact, when it comes to fixing the economy, economists across the political spectrum are remarkably agreed on the question of whether or not Trump is the man to do it. In a brutal article published Friday, The Wall Street Journal surveyed 45 economists who have served on the White House Council of Economic Advisers under one of the past eight presidents. Not a single one of them said that they would support Trump.
But for Trump, the blessing of the elites doesn’t matter. Economic uncertainty is like fertilizer for the worries that he is trying to plant in the minds of voters, and if his new campaign team has any sense at all, they will be advising him to play up the state of the economy in his public appearances and to play down the ridiculous promises about his ultimate victory with minority voters.