Vi­brant econ­omy chal­lenges some vot­ers

Di­vi­sive pres­i­dent’s words off­set by good job num­bers

Albany Times Union - Sunday - - FROM THE COVER - By Josh Boak Associated Press Ex­ton, Penn­syl­va­nia

For many vot­ers in Amer­ica’s af­flu­ent sub­urbs, a flour­ish­ing econ­omy is forc­ing a thorny dilemma for the midterm elec­tions.

Do they vote Demo­cratic, in part to protest Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump for be­hav­ior some see as di­vi­sive and un­pres­i­den­tial? Or do they back Repub­li­cans in hopes that the econ­omy will con­tinue thriv­ing un­der the ma­jor­ity party?

A healthy econ­omy has at least com­pli­cated their de­ci­sion and blurred the out­come of the midterm elec­tions. On Fri­day, the govern­ment re­ported that em­ploy­ers added a ro­bust 250,000 jobs in Oc­to­ber. And the un­em­ploy­ment rate stayed at a five-decade low of 3.7 per­cent.

At stake Tues­day is con­trol of the House and Se­nate, both now led by Repub­li­can ma­jori­ties. Steady eco­nomic growth and a vig­or­ous job mar­ket haven’t been the clincher in pros­per­ous ar­eas that were once seem­ingly safe Repub­li­can turf. Partly as a re­sult, many an­a­lysts say Democrats stand a good chance of re­gain­ing con­trol of the House even while Repub­li­cans main­tain the Se­nate.

The am­biva­lence of many vot­ers is ev­i­dent in the Philadel­phia sub­urbs of Bucks and Chester coun­ties. The land­scape of rolling hills is dot­ted by shop­ping plazas and lux­ury car deal­er­ships, by field­stone and stucco houses that fill cul-de-sacs. Res­i­dents are like­lier than the coun­try as a whole to have col­lege de­grees, and the me­dian fam­ily in­come is about $100,000.

In­ter­views with about a dozen peo­ple elicited a range of sen­ti­ments about whether and how the econ­omy might af­fect their votes. For some, all that mat­ters is the en­er­gized pace of job growth, which be­gan un­der Pres­i­dent Barack Obama and has con­tin­ued un­der Trump.

Oth­ers, some of them life­long Repub­li­cans, are find­ing their loy­al­ties tested by a pres­i­dent who em­braces tar­iffs, dis­par­ages refugees and at­tacks po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents. With Penn­syl­va­nia also hold­ing votes for gover­nor and a Se­nate seat, many said they were will­ing to split their votes be­tween the par­ties.

“I’m not a fan of Don­ald Trump,” said 85-year-old Ross Ker­shey. “He doesn’t re­spect checks and bal­ances. But he’s cer­tainly done well for the econ­omy.”

A re­tired high school his­tory teacher, Ker­shey is teach­ing a course on the Supreme Court at Im­mac­u­lata Univer­sity in Malvern, a sub­urb of Philadel­phia. Those court cases were fresh in his mind as he sipped tea and ate pan­cakes at an IHOP on a re­cent af­ter­noon. He ob­jects to Trump’s re­cent threat to uni­lat­er­ally sus­pend the con­sti­tu­tional pro­tec­tion of birthright cit­i­zen­ship as a way to con­trol un­doc­u­mented im­mi­gra­tion.

Yet for all his an­tipa­thy to­ward the pres­i­dent, the strength of the econ­omy is at least giv­ing Ker­shey pause: “I’ll prob­a­bly vote Demo­cratic, but I’m not sure yet.”

Work­ers have been in­creas­ingly ben­e­fit­ing from the econ­omy’s strength. Av­er­age pay growth over the past 12 months has reached 3.1 per­cent, its best year-over-year in­crease since 2009, the govern­ment said Fri­day. Those gains have been con­cen­trated among af­flu­ent Amer­i­cans, though higher min­i­mum wages have also helped raise the pay of many lower-in­come work­ers.

Among peo­ple earn­ing at least $100,000, 60 per­cent ap­prove of how Trump has han­dled the econ­omy, ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey by The Associated Press and NORC Cen­ter for Pub­lic Af­fairs Re­search.

Jean Hoff­man, a 53-year-old real es­tate agent in Chester County, is pon­der­ing the col­lege costs ahead for her two teenage daugh­ters. She said she thinks vot­ing Repub­li­can might help ex­tend the econ­omy’s hot streak.

“I’m go­ing to have two kids in col­lege, and these are my earn­ing years,” she said. “So for me, the econ­omy is the No. 1 pri­or­ity.”

Hoff­man said she feels less con­cerned about Trump’s con­fronta­tional style or habit of as­sail­ing crit­ics.

“It’s like white noise at this point,” she said.

Judg­ing by the econ­omy, the sta­tus of the House ap­pears too close to call, said Ray Fair, a Yale econ­o­mist. Us­ing in­fla­tion and growth data,

Fair de­vel­oped a model to fore­cast elec­toral out­comes, which in 2016 cor­rectly showed that that pres­i­den­tial elec­tion fa­vored Repub­li­cans.

For 2018, Fair’s econ­omy-based model is less fa­vor­able than most po­lit­i­cal sur­veys for Demo­cratic prospects to win the House. But the gap isn’t suf­fi­cient to draw a firm con­clu­sion about what will hap­pen Tues­day. Be­cause the party out of power — Democrats, in this case — gen­er­ally en­joys an ad­van­tage in midterms, growth would have to be even stronger to de­ci­sively help Repub­li­cans this year.

Jean Hoff­man, a 53-year-old real es­tate agent, said she feels less con­cerned about Trump’s con­fronta­tional style or habit of as­sail­ing crit­ics. “It’s like white noise at this point,” she said.

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