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Commentary: "It's the economy, stupid" could be trumped

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A year into Donald Trump's presidency, a new CBS News poll gauges the mood of the nation 02:11

There's good news and bad news for Republicans in recent polls.

GOP candidates heading into the 2018 midterms have to be gratified by one aspect of the latest polling. The new CBSNews/ Nation Tracker finds that by a two-to-one margin (48-22 percent) Americans believe the country is "doing well economically."  The same is true in the recent Quinnipiac poll, which a large majority -- 66 percent of Americans -- believe the economy is "excellent" or "good," the highest number since Quinnipiac began asking this question in 2001.

And why shouldn't these numbers be high? The Trump administration has seen robust economic growth exceeding expectations. Wages for workers were edging up even before large employers from Aflac to Wal-Mart began handing out bonuses and increasing benefits. And then there's the stock market, which just soared to a first-time high of 25,000.

In short, it's hard to imagine an economic picture President Trump and the GOP could paint for voters that would be better than this. 

And that makes the bad news that much worse.

For the same respondents to the CBS poll who think so highly of the economy also:

  • Think the country is very divided (74-7 percent)
  • Feel we're worse off today than when Trump was elected (43-35 percent)
  • Really don't like Donald Trump as a person (66-34 percent)

And having him for president makes them feel angry (35 percent), pessimistic (38 percent), and embarrassed (44 percent)—the top three answers in the poll.

Nation Tracker: 74 percent of Americans feel the country is divided 06:43

Once again, these numbers are reflected in other recent polling. About half of Americans told Gallup they feel optimistic about the economy for 2018, but nearly 80 percent also said they expect a "troubled year" for our nation.  And based on their answer to the generic "would you prefer a Republican or Democrat representative in Congress," the American people are blaming the GOP.  

Harry Enten at found the polling average on this question gives Democrats a 12-point advantage. "That average shows Republicans in worse shape right now than any other majority party at this point in the midterm cycle since at least the 1938 election," Enten says.  

So the economy's booming, people see continued prosperity, the stock market's setting record…and voters are as mad as hell, and they're not gonna take it anymore!

It's not supposed to work this way. As we famously learned from Bill Clinton adviser James Carville, "It's the economy, stupid." Except, apparently, it's not. Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan predicted last month that "when people see their paychecks getting bigger in February because withholding tables have adjusted to reflect their tax cuts," the popularity of the plan—and the GOP—would rise.

Unfortunately for Ryan and his GOP majority, these polls show voters have already priced in positive economic news, and they still feel very negative about Republicans in general and about Trump, in particular. Short of going door-to-door and handing out BitCoin to individual voters, what can the GOP do on the prosperity front to bolster their poll numbers? At this point, not much.

What's happening? As a young GOP political consultant, I was taught there are three questions a candidate needs to get voters to answer "yes" for a chance to win an election:

Do I like you? Do I trust you? Can you do the job?  (And yes, those questions are in order of importance.)

With a Republican president who's underwater on all three questions, it's no surprise the GOP's fortunes are fading.  Adding to the challenge, the issue of managing the economy falls under the third, and least important, question.  Better policy and better outcomes may simply not be enough to save the GOP, no matter how good the news might be before the midterm elections in November.

Congressional Republicans appear to have come to the same conclusion. As of today, 31 Republicans have announced they're not seeking re-election this year. That's the largest single-year exodus from a party since Democrats fled Congress in 1994, just ahead of the "Gingrich Revolution" and the first GOP majority since the election of 1952. 

Is it possible the Trump White House and his GOP allies can change the perception of their brand in the next 10 months? In the Trump era, anything is possible. But given the behavior of the president himself, it also seems extremely unlikely.

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