Donald Trump sought to refocus his re-election campaign on the economy after a strong third-quarter GDP report on Thursday, as Republican strategists and lawmakers hoped a more consistent message in the closing days of the campaign would reinvigorate his bid for a second term.
Campaigning in Florida on Thursday, Mr Trump touted the “explosive growth” of 33.1 per cent on an annualised basis reported by the commerce department for the third quarter as evidence that he was able to drag the world’s largest economy out of the recession triggered by the pandemic.
“We are doing great. Did you see the number today? 33.1 GDP,” Mr Trump said. “We locked down, we understood the disease, and now we are open for business.”
The comments from the US president came as he tried to eat into the polling lead held by Joe Biden, the former vice-president and Democratic candidate, ahead of the November 3 vote. Mr Biden is ahead by 8.6 points nationally, according to an FT analysis of RealClearPolitics data and also holds a lead in several of the battleground states that will decide the election, albeit by smaller margins.
Many voters have soured on Mr Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic this year, a vulnerability that was exacerbated by his dismissive attitude towards mask wearing, his own infection with the disease, and the latest flare-up in cases across the country.
Voters have consistently scored Mr Trump more favourably on the economy, which makes it his best argument in the final clashes with Mr Biden, even if his edge on the issue has diminished. However, some surveys suggest that he is also losing his edge on this issue, including the latest FT-Peterson poll, which found a majority of voters thought his policies were hurting rather than helping the economy.
“People are going back to work in a lot of places in the swing states. And that's what's going to help the president win re-election,” said John Feehery, a Republican strategist and former congressional aide.
Doug Holtz-Eakin, a former economic adviser to John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and the president of the American Action Forum in Washington, said the GDP report would aid Mr Trump in his efforts to turn out the Republican base.
“We’ve got cases spiking around the globe and he’s talking about opening things up more, and I actually think that’s quite rational in terms of what the polls are telling him. That’s what people want to talk about,” Mr Holtz-Eakin said. “This report helps him,” he added.
Mr Biden and his campaign have argued that Mr Trump’s struggles with the coronavirus response have deepened economic America’s woes and prolonged the crisis.
“I’m not going to shut down the economy. I’m not going to shut down the country. But I am going to shut down the virus,” Mr Biden said during his own rally in Florida.
Economists have also pointed out that the strong GDP number masks the fact that US output as well as employment levels remain far from pre-pandemic levels, and that the recovery is showing worrying signs of a slowdown amid new spikes in coronavirus and fading fiscal help.
Some Republican strategists believe the economic data may have come too late in the campaign to make a difference. Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor to Mr Trump, said while new GDP numbers appeared to validate Mr Trump's promise of a “V-shaped recovery”, it might not be enough to help him recover ground so close to the election.
“We've got six days until the election and a lot of people have already voted . . . He's made the economy a central tenet of his campaign for re-election. But this is really a contest about his popularity. There's probably not enough time for the good economic news to be a game-changer,” Mr Eberhart added.
Whit Ayres, a veteran GOP strategist, also played down the potential impact of the positive numbers this late in the election cycle.
“Most voters understand that the economy will never get back to where it was until we get the virus under control. It's simply common sense that nothing will return to normal while we're hitting a record number of new Covid cases on a daily basis,” Mr Ayres said.
But such concerns did not stop Republican lawmakers, many of whom are also facing tough races in next week’s election, from pointing to the data as evidence of Mr Trump’s economic leadership.
“After Covid-19 devastated America’s strong economy almost overnight, the Trump economy did the impossible — it battled back with the largest single quarter of economic growth in America’s history,” said Kevin Brady, a senior Republican member of Congress from Texas.