• Max Ghose

‘It’s The Economy, Stupid!’ Or is it?

Updated: Nov 16

'The economy is no longer a salient voting issue'. True or False?

Like any politically-minded young person in Britain I spend too much time caring about America. Aged thirteen I bought the classic Obama ‘Hope’ poster for my bedroom wall, aged nineteen I lamented at Mr Musk’s takeover of twitter (on Twitter) and I think I may have even once told an interviewer that my favourite show was ‘The West Wing’. I know, how naive. Yet one thing Britons should give half a glance towards is national American elections.

Last Tuesday, the Republican wave predicted to sweep control of the US Senate and House of Representatives whimpered against the Democratic shore. In fact, the Democrats have kept their Senate majority, potentially gaining an additional seat, and have probably only lost the House by less than a handful of Representatives. We don’t know the exact numbers but what we do know is that whatever ‘wave’ Republican strategists were hoping for certainly did not materialise.

For the Democrats, this is more than anyone could have expected from them. Modern American midterm elections are notoriously vengeful against the party in the White House. In 2010, Tea Party Republicans capitalised on the devastating 2008 Recession under President Obama’s watch. In 1994, Republicans ended the Democrats’ 40-year hold on the US House due to President Clinton’s unpopularity, especially on ‘tax and spend’ policies. 2002 was a post-9/11 exception, but the 2006 elections punished Bush and his fellow Republicans dearly in the context of failing domestic foreign policy.

Yet in the context of 8% inflation, volatile gas prices and a bearish market sobering itself from its covid-induced highs, the post-election political map has barely shifted. In the difficult economic conditions of the Ukrainian War and post-covid inflation, it is quite extraordinary that Democrats have not only been more than competitive but flipped Republican seats in the likes of Pennsylvania. So does James Carville, author of the titular quote, still have it right? Is it still ‘the economy, stupid’ that dictates US politics?

About a week before the election, President Biden was criticised for making a grand final-pitch speech on democracy and election integrity. Immediately afterwards, articles in American media, including by friendlier types like CNN, were apprehensive about this focus, arguing that the economy would be the single largest factor in determining Americans’ votes. It seems like President Biden was right - but why?

Well, I’ve surprised myself by the fact I haven’t mentioned him thus far, but President Trump has fundamentally changed the environment. Despite his name not appearing on a single ballot, the elections both within and outside the Republican Party were characterised by the former President. Trump’s influence in progressing his selected candidates to the party’s nomination in many swing elections no doubt will have hurt the GOP. His successful backing of Herschel Walker in Georgia, Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania or a litany of other election-denying candidates for congressional nominations shows that Republicans are still gripped by President Trump.

However, it’s these Republicans in competitive elections who generally fared worse off than their more moderate counterparts (not that there are many actual ‘moderates’ in the Republican Party). In the State of Georgia, Republican Governor Brian Kemp, who refused to capitulate to Trump’s election-denying demands in 2020, outran the party’s election-denying senate candidate Herschel Walker by five points. Meanwhile, Trump-sponsored candidates lost or underperformed across the country, including Kari Lake and Blake Masters in Arizona, Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and Lauren Boebert in Colorado.

To put it bluntly, if Republicans can’t win historically-red Arizona’s Senate or Gubernatorial race in a midterm election with 8% national inflation and a President with a negative 10 approval rating, something’s not right. To the dismay of many Republican higher-ups, it seems that the Trump-effect was the Democrats’ midterm silver bullet against the Republican wave that never materialised.

So, for as long as Donald Trump remains in the national psyche of the electorate, it’s not the economy, stupid.