It’s (Still) Not The Economy, Stupid

As President Trump finally secures the nomination that was always meant to be his, the GOP must now shift its focus to the general election. While that means shifting targets away from other Republicans and instead focusing on Joe Biden, it also means a proper shift in messaging. As it stands now, the Republican Party is on track to focus on all of the wrong issues going into November.

When an Outlier Becomes a Trend

For the last several decades since the end of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the GOP has always preferred to promote one issue and one issue alone: fiscal conservatism. From lower taxes and reduced regulations to cutting government spending, the Republican Party loves to talk about the free market and often little else.

This strategy has stemmed from the infamous line used by Democratic strategist James Carville during the 1992 campaign that saw Bill Clinton defeat President George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot: “It’s the economy, stupid.” And this was based partially on the famous question that Reagan asked at the end of his only debate with Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”

Indeed, for the longest time, conventional political wisdom suggests that voters will side with the party that promotes the most economic prosperity. If the economy gets worse under a presidential term, the voters usually punish the party in power by replacing them.

But recent trends have proven that this strategy is increasingly failing as voters grow tired of the same stale and repetitive crowing about taxes and inflation.

The 2022 midterms are the most recent example. Despite record-high inflation, abysmally high gas prices, and other economic woes, the final result was a wash for the Republican Party. The Democrats only narrowly lost their hold on the House of Representatives and even gained a seat in the Senate. This happened despite the nonstop attack ads highlighting the economic downturn, the playful stickers of Joe Biden that had been slapped onto many a gas pump nationwide, and other reminders of the financial calamity that Biden’s policies have wrought.

Going even further back, there were clear alarm bells in the aftermath of the 2020 election, signaling that the economy stopped mattering to most voters. In September of 2020, the country’s premiere pollster, Gallup, held its traditional poll, asking voters the same question that Reagan did in 1980: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

Despite the tumultuous circumstances of the year, from the Chinese coronavirus lockdowns to the disastrous race riots, a staggering number of voters responded in the affirmative: A record-high 56% said they were better off under Trump than they had been under Obama, smashing the previous record of 47% who said so ahead of George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004.

And yet, despite this, Joe Biden still went on to “win” the election. Even if we take into account the obvious fraud that more than likely stole the election from Trump, we can still deduce that, at the very least, a plurality of voters chose Biden over Trump just as they did with Hillary Clinton over Trump in 2016. Somehow, despite 56% of Americans declaring that they were better off financially under Trump, roughly 7% or 8% of that total decided to flip and vote for Biden anyway.

Even further back in the timeline prior to 2020, the 2018 midterms proved to be yet another example of voters throwing any and all economic concerns out the window. As a colleague wrote under a very similar title six years ago, the economy didn’t matter in the slightest in 2018, when voters threw out Paul Ryan and his House majority despite a booming economy thanks to President Trump’s policies. Just as constantly talking about a worse economy under Biden meant nothing to voters in 2022, promoting a prosperous economy under Trump did little to convince voters to back the Republicans in 2018.

What Really Matters

Now, why on earth would any American voter actively vote against their own financial interests? What could compel an American citizen to knowingly cast their vote for someone that they expect will do a worse job of handling the economy?

Several months before the 2022 midterms, yours truly predicted that the GOP was on track to blow a winnable election year through one fatal mistake: ignoring the rise of cultural and social issues in favor of a return to default factory settings by once again talking about inflation, gas prices, and other arbitrary financial numbers. There were clear examples of the former strategy succeeding where the latter failed, with Republicans in states such as Florida making gains in numerous school board elections, while Chamber of Commerce-endorsed Republicans lost winnable special elections in New York.

A year prior, Republicans pulled off a massive upset with the red wave that swept Virginia and nearly flipped New Jersey. Governor Glenn Youngkin and the Republicans who rode his coattails did this not because they spent the majority of the campaign talking about high inflation, but because they spent the crucial last few weeks of the campaign zeroing in on social issues such as Critical Race Theory and transgenderism, which fell under the broader umbrella of the education issue. But in 2022, Republicans rejected the blueprint that the Virginia wave presented them and reverted back to boring fiscal issues. The results speak for themselves.

The answer, most simply, is that we have moved into a brave new world when it comes to political priorities. Gone is the era where voters dutifully voted based on their bank accounts, tax returns, or grocery payments; here to stay is the era where voters vote based on feelings, preferring issues that tug on the heartstrings, eliciting emotions such as sadness or anger. The era of “facts don’t care about your feelings” is out,” and the era of “feelings don’t care about your facts” is in.

Once again, President Trump proved himself to be far ahead of the curve compared to the rest of the GOP, and this dilemma is no exception. His campaign in 2016 did not make Reaganesque promises of reducing the deficit or increasing employment. He vowed to build the wall and keep hordes of third-world illegals out, promised to crack down on unfair trade practices that gutted American jobs, and pledged to end pointless forever wars and bring the boys back home. His campaign platform spoke directly to Americans by addressing issues that were legitimate causes for fear—not on an economic level, but an existential one that threatened the future of our nation as we know it.

There is a reason President Trump has seen his numbers spike like never before, in both the Republican primary and the general election. It has nothing to do with his economic agenda but has everything to do with the numerous legal attacks against him and his subsequent vows of “retribution” for himself and all Americans who have been persecuted by Biden’s out-of-control Deep State.

Whereas other candidates and their surrogates laughably tried to prioritize the economy over transgenderism, or lecture voters about outdated notions of “fiscal responsibility,” Trump has made the election about a civilizational fight that will determine the fate of America, pitting the American people and the power of their vote against the entirety of the weaponized federal government. Such historically high stakes will do far more to motivate voters than the latest monthly jobs report.

A New Generation of Hearts and Minds

Part of this new phenomenon can be attributed to the rise of social media and the sensationalizing of politics, which was due in large part to Trump himself and his historic candidacy in 2016, which brought in millions of new voters who had either never voted before or had not voted in decades due to a sense of disillusionment with the system.

But another reason is the rising generations that will soon become the dominant age demographics in America: Millennials and Generation Z, or “Zoomers.” As I wrote in the aftermath of the 2022 midterms, the other big reason for the stunning resilience of the Democrats, besides the GOP’s disastrous economics-based messaging, was the fact that most Zoomers are now finally eligible to vote.

These voters, too, are motivated not by the economy but by social issues that are portrayed as a threat to their very existence. From gun control and global warming to abortion, if there is one economic issue that does matter to this group, it’s the student loan debt crisis. On this issue too, the Democrats are way ahead of the Republicans by addressing it not as a matter of “fiscal responsibility,” but as a soul-crushing burden that destroys lives through insurmountable debt. And, unlike the Republicans, the Democrats promise to solve the issue for them rather than lecture them about “picking yourselves up by your bootstraps” and dealing with it yourself.

It may be easy to dismiss this generational divide as a matter of young and dumb voters who haven’t lived a full life of experience. But the fact remains that until they do reach their 60’s, we must come to terms with how they will vote in their 20’s.

And the simplest explanation is that, quite frankly, Zoomers have spent most of their lives knowing nothing but a bad economy. Just as many of them have only ever known a nation at war in the aftermath of 9/11, all that the majority of them have ever known in the aftermath of the 2007–2008 financial crisis is a bad economy. Thus, when Republicans try to convince them that the economy should be the reason they vote against Democrats, they will simply shrug it off and say, “What’s the difference?”

When this disconnect between economic concerns of the past and the newfound priorities of young voters becomes apparent, it becomes clear that the GOP had better shift its messaging tactics fast if it hopes to keep up with the shifting age demographics. Trump already understands this very well, and there’s a reason why he dominated amongst Zoomers and Millennials in the Iowa caucuses.

Abandoning the False god of the Economy

It would do the GOP well to heed the advice of one other person besides Donald Trump who has already seen the writing on the wall when it comes to the obsolescence of the “it’s the economy, stupid” messaging: the most popular conservative commentator in the world.

Back in November of 2018, shortly before the midterm elections, one of the most important debates in the modern history of the American Right took place: Then-Fox News host Tucker Carlson vs. Ben Shapiro of the Daily Wire.

In the 50-minute video, Shapiro takes the stance that free-market capitalism is itself the ultimate end goal for which all societies should strive. Carlson assumes the stance that capitalism, like any economic system, is nothing more than a tool for achieving a good society that is about more than just economics.

If capitalism is the best economic system for achieving a free society, Carlson argues, then so be it; but if it proves to be obsolete, corrupted, or even detrimental to that end, then it must be abandoned. And if the GOP refuses to acknowledge even the most obvious problems with capitalism, from disastrous free trade agreements to Big Tech companies and other monopolies running amok with no oversight, then they risk completely surrendering the battle for the youth vote to the Democrats.

The 2024 election is shaping up perfectly for President Trump to campaign on many of the same issues that won him the 2016 election, as well as new topics that were not present in 2016. From an even worse mass migration crisis and the subsequent spread of drugs, crime, and homelessness, to a world that’s even more on fire than it was under the Obama years, from the blatant anti-White racism being passed off as “equality” and “diversity,” to the insanity of the transgender agenda and the real-world devastation it has caused, from the mass mutilation of young children to the handful of mass shootings carried out by trans culprits.

The Republicans are being gifted a bulletproof platform with which to crush the Democrats in November, and to do so without even once mentioning inflation or gas prices. Voters who truly care about pocketbook issues will cast their votes without any motivation from either of the political parties. Voters who might otherwise stay home or vote for the Democrats due to casual social and cultural pressure can only be persuaded to back Trump if the GOP hammers the heartstring issues.

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About Eric Lendrum

Eric Lendrum graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he was the Secretary of the College Republicans and the founding chairman of the school’s Young Americans for Freedom chapter. He has interned for Young America’s Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, and the White House, and has worked for numerous campaigns including the 2018 re-election of Congressman Devin Nunes (CA-22). He is currently a co-host of The Right Take podcast.