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Maybe it’s not the economy, stupid

Many voters have the luxury to focus on other issues in this presidential election

Poor grades: Like Joe Biden, Donald Trump's approval ratings while president were low despite a strong economy.Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post

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As he runs for reelection, President Biden is counting on voters to give him credit for the solid economy.

His presumptive challenger, former President Donald Trump, is trying to exploit the deep worries many Americans nonetheless harbor about their financial futures. Which candidate has the stronger hand? It remains to be seen. And consider this: While always a key issue, the economy could very well end up not being the deciding factor in the 2024 race.

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“It’s not the only thing that matters,” Nate Cohn, chief political analyst at The New York Times, said in a recent episode of “The Daily” podcast. “And over time, there have been more and more signs that the economy has become a little less important in shaping the outcome of our elections.”

Catch up: Widely followed surveys from the Conference Board and University of Michigan show consumer sentiment is starting to improve, and Democrats are hoping that the pickup will boost Biden’s popularity and reelection chances.

Behind this modestly brighter outlook is a host of upbeat economic data. Inflation has slowed dramatically. Unemployment is on its longest run below 4 percent in 55 years. And wage growth is finally outpacing price increases.

But Biden’s approval rating has been stuck at around 38 percent for most of the past two years, according to a poll released on Feb. 1 by the Associated Press and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Just 35 percent of respondents approved of his handling of the economy.

Fraying link: In his podcast appearance, the Times’ Cohn laid out his counterintuitive argument for why a good economy doesn’t necessarily translate to good approval ratings. Trump’s ratings never topped 50 percent, he noted, despite a strong economy in his first three years in office.

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Extreme partisanship has left the country divided on “a pretty long set of ideologically charged issues that voters care a lot about,” Cohn said.

For blue-collar workers, pocketbook issues tend to be the most pressing. But higher education levels and rising incomes mean more people have the luxury to learn about and assess candidates based on noneconomic issues, he said.

Bad vibes: In a story this week based on interviews with a cross-section of people, The Wall Street Journal offered this explanation for the disconnect between upbeat economic headlines and the country’s downbeat mood: “Americans feel sour about the economy, many say, because their long-term financial security feels fragile and vulnerable to wide-ranging social and political threats.”

The Journal’s reporting found concerns that cut across party affiliation. Inflation has declined but prices remain high. The soaring cost of living offset a lot of wage growth. Housing has only gotten more expensive. The world feels like a dangerous place, with wars raging in Ukraine and the Middle East.

Bottom line: People feel like they are just scraping by, and one setback could be disastrous.

“You could argue unemployment is 3.7 percent, but who cares with this level of uncertainty?” Alfredo Arguello, a restaurant owner outside Nashville, told the Journal. “Because that’s what people are feeling. They’re not feeling hope. They’re not feeling one country. They’re feeling a divisive, divided United States of America.”

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Final thought: Hopeless and polarized isn’t usually a hospitable political climate for an incumbent. But Trump is not exactly a uniter. He’s better at stoking grievances than hope.

Barring an unexpected reversal, Biden should have a good economy at his back. If so, voters may well focus on other issues.

Abortion, climate change, immigration, race, the candidates’ mental acuity — the list goes on — could influence the outcome as much as, or more, than how the stock market is doing.


Larry Edelman can be reached at larry.edelman@globe.com. Follow him @GlobeNewsEd.