Election Shows Stark Partisan Divide On Economy, Coronavirus

Nov 4, 2020
Originally published on November 6, 2020 7:42 am

When it comes to how the economy is emerging from the pandemic, voters couldn't be further apart.

A massive survey conducted by The Associated Press showed more than 4 in 10 Americans describe the economy as "good" or "excellent." And they voted overwhelmingly for President Trump.

Those who see the economy as "poor" or "not so good," on the other hand, were much more likely to cast their ballots for Joe Biden.

Deep partisan divisions that shaped this year's election also color the way people feel about the economy and the pandemic that upended it, according to the survey of more than 110,000 voters conducted by the AP.

The AP VoteCast survey found the economy and jobs were the No. 1 issue for 28% of Americans, and more than 8 in 10 of those voters favored Trump.

An even larger share of the electorate (41%) said the coronavirus is the most important issue. Voters in that camp chose Biden by a margin of nearly 3-to-1.

In reality, the pandemic and the economy are closely intertwined.

Efforts to contain the virus during the spring shuttered businesses across the country, resulting in millions of layoffs.

Since then, the president has pushed aggressively to reopen businesses. But those calls have sometimes backfired as renewed surges in infections force local officials to reimpose limits on restaurants, movie theaters and other economic activity.

Nervous consumers also tend to dial back their spending when the pandemic death toll rises.

Of the 22 million jobs that were lost in March and April, the U.S. has so far regained about half. Job gains slowed in July, August and September. New job figures for October will be reported on Friday.

Some industries have adapted to the pandemic better than others. Factories are nearly back to pre-coronavirus levels of production. But service businesses — especially those that rely on large crowds and face-to-face interaction — have recovered more slowly.

Unemployment stands at 7.9%, and more than 1 million people file new claims for jobless assistance with each passing week. Despite a record rebound in July, August and September, the overall economy is still about 3.5% smaller than it was before the pandemic hit.

Still, building a strong economy was one of Trump's biggest selling points during the campaign, and his supporters trust he can do so again.

The president's critics are skeptical and worry that no lasting recovery is possible until the pandemic is under control.

Biden carried a majority of voters in both low- and high-income households, while Trump had a narrow edge with those in the middle, earning between $50,000 and $100,000 a year.

Biden had stronger support with voters in cities and suburbs, who made up 66% of the total electorate, while Trump held majorities in rural areas and small towns.

Those less-densely populated areas were largely spared during the early months of the pandemic, but infections are now surging in most of the country.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The presidential election came during a year of economic calamity, when the pandemic drove unemployment to record levels in recent times. It came during a year of soaring inequality, when some people suffered more than others. Voter data from The Associated Press, a massive survey of 140,000 people, shows that most Americans see serious problems with the economy. But at the same time, more than 4 in 10 voters described the economy as good or excellent. And people who felt that way voted overwhelmingly for President Trump. NPR chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley is tracking this. Hey there, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Given the objective problems we can describe in the economy, how surprising is it that some people thought the economy was in good shape or even excellent shape?

HORSLEY: It is a little surprising. Certainly, things have improved since the worst of the downturn during the springtime, but there are still some red flags. At last count, we had more than 20 million people collecting unemployment benefits in this country. More than 1 out of 10 told the census last month they didn't have enough to eat in their household. There are widespread concerns about eviction and foreclosure. Nevertheless, when the AP asked people how they feel about the economy, 43% called it good or excellent. And of that group, more than 80% voted for President Trump. Jorge Rivas (ph) is a Trump supporter who lives in Arizona. He says he doesn't fault the president for any of the hardships over the last eight months.

JORGE RIVAS: The virus - I think he has done as good as any other person could have done it. And we know the economy was doing excellent before this coronavirus. And once this whole thing is gone, I'm sure it will be back as good as we were before.

HORSLEY: Steve, we know that people's partisan attitudes can play a role in shaping the way they see the economy, and that seems to be showing up in these AP results.

INSKEEP: And seems also to have shown up in the polling results, meaning the polling places, the way people voted.

HORSLEY: Yeah. More than a quarter of the people AP surveyed said the economy was their No. 1 issue as they went to the polls. But an even larger group, 41%, said the coronavirus was their No. 1 concern. And that was kind of a mirror image. The vast majority of those coronavirus voters went for Joe Biden. I remember talking over the summer with GOP pollster Whit Ayres. And he was worried that the president's talking points on the economy, which was Trump's No. 1 selling point, would just be drowned out by the pandemic, which by Election Day, of course, had killed more than 230,000 people.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

WHIT AYRES: The coronavirus pandemic is weighing heavily on the economy. And it becomes very difficult to get the economy roaring back to where it was until we find a solution to the pandemic.

HORSLEY: So it's not really a question of fighting the virus or boosting the economy. As we've said many times on this program, you've got to do both.

INSKEEP: What's it mean for the economy that we're heading into the colder months and infections are soaring to new heights?

HORSLEY: Nothing good. Just yesterday, the U.S. logged 100,000 new coronavirus cases. And as those case counts grow, we've seen strict new limits on economic activity in Europe. We've seen some localized restrictions in this country. We could certainly see more of that as the winter comes.

And even if the government doesn't order lockdowns, we know that when there's concern about a deadly virus in the community, consumers just automatically dial back their spending. They don't go out as much. Certainly, some businesses have found ways to operate in this environment. That Trump supporter we heard from, Jorge Rivas, runs a Mexican restaurant in Arizona. That state was really hammered by the pandemic, but he - even though he closed his dining room for a few months, he still did a lot of business at the drive-through.

RIVAS: When other restaurants started to shut down in the neighborhood, people started to come here to buy from us because they knew that we had a drive-through. We had good food, good service. So our business has gone up instead of going down.

HORSLEY: Of course, a lot of restaurants have really struggled. And any business that relies on bringing people together for face-to-face contact has big challenges in this environment.

INSKEEP: Scott, thanks so much for the update.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Scott Horsley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.