Gallup: Majority says they're better off than four years ago -- but ...

It’s the classic re-election question, and it produces a classic mixed-bag result for Gallup in its polling. Do Americans believe themselves to be better off than they were four years ago? That seems like a pretty dangerous question for Donald Trump and his campaign, given the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic devastation that the shutdowns have wrought.

Surprisingly, though, that’s actually the best part of Gallup’s results for Team Trump. A majority of registered voters say they do consider themselves better off than in 2016, even with all of the chaos and economic damage this year. In fact, that’s the best rating on this question since Ronaldus Magnus himself used it to devastating effect on Jimmy Carter:

During his presidential campaign in 1980, Ronald Reagan asked Americans, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” Since then, this question has served as a key standard that sitting presidents running for reelection have been held to.

Gallup’s most recent survey found a clear majority of registered voters (56%) saying they are better off now than they were four years ago, while 32% said they are worse off.

That’s not just a record — it’s eleven points better than voters’ assessment eight years ago, when Barack Obama still wound up winning a second term. The only re-elect failure in the past 40 years (other than Carter) came in 1992, when only 38% of voters thought they were better off. That came after a mild recession which had already ended at that point and a resounding victory over Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War. And even then, George H.W. Bush only lost in a three-way battle in which Bill Clinton only got 43% of the popular vote. (Oddly, it looks like Gallup didn’t poll on that question in 1996 for Clinton’s re-election.) In all instances, the incumbent president won the same share or higher in the popular vote than reflected in Gallup’s four-year question — with the exception of 1992, a significantly higher share.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t translate into massive support for Donald Trump in 2020. In the same poll, Trump does beat Joe Biden on agreement on issues, 49/46, in what is more a virtual tie. When it comes to “presidential qualities,” Trump trails 44/49. Note well that this poll was conducted prior to the first presidential debate, which may make this out of date in a way that Team Trump won’t much like. This suggests that even their overall satisfaction with the past four years isn’t translating into Trump support in the way the four-year question usually does, and likely in large part because of Trump’s character issues. On that, he’s his own worst enemy, and his debate behavior is likely exacerbating the problem.

There is yet another silver lining, however. Unlike most of the media polling, Gallup’s data shows this to be a very close race. Republicans have a slight enthusiasm edge too (83/81), and it would appear that we are heading into a high-turnout election, which normally would favor Democrats. However, the utter lack of retail politicking by Team Biden and the DNC could well be a huge factor in a race as close as the Gallup data suggests, not just in the presidential election but all the way down the ballot. This data paints a picture of a contest that’s much closer than people think it is, and which has the fundamentals to see voters coming back to Trump on issues and performance in the final days.

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