Normally, a political party in power would expect that an economy full of good numbers would mean happy, secure voters and a path to election success.
This year, however, there’s a potentially historic disconnect between economic data suggesting a good and growing economy, and a groundswell of voters who think those numbers are rigged.
Interviews with several dozen voters in Western Pennsylvania who support Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump revealed a deeply held distrust of government statistics and programs, a fear that their own relative prosperity is threatened and the strong sense that change is critical in the White House.
Take the the national unemployment rate of 5 percent, heralded by Democrats a sign of progress from the high of 10 percent in October 2009, early in Democrat Barack Obama’s presidency.
“That’s ridiculous. Unemployment is far higher than that,” said Michael Vranek, 72, a real estate veteran from Ligonier, Pennsylvania, who works for a wealth manager and thinks the Obama administration is cooking the books.. “It’s over 10 percent, and maybe closer to 20 percent.”
It’s a view shared by Vaughn Yenich, 51, a stay-at-home father who cares for a child with disabilities and who waited in line for a GOP campaign rally here this week.
“I don’t think that 5 percent rate is right. It has to do with people participating in the economy, and there aren’t as many people participating,” he said, a fact partly borne out by the latest readings.
Today’s economic recovery is far less than advertised, Yenich insisted.
“The little guy is getting squeezed out,” he said, adding that he’d worked part time at the Lowe’s hardware chain for 15 years and wages haven’t gone up. “Everything is going up, and incomes haven’t gone up.”
A quick check online suggests that most Lowe’s employees get 3 to 5 percent raises annually. After a long flat period, household income rose by an average of 5.2 percent last year. Most working Americans are taking home more pay, and their dollars stretch farther with low inflation.
Still, some Trump voters question how much growth there’s really been.
“One percent GDP means we’re going backwards, in my mind,” said Dan Lloyd, who is in the insurance business and doubted the most recent reading of economic growth, which actually was close to 3 percent for the period from July through September.
Lloyd runs an insurance business outside Pittsburgh with two employees, and he said everything from getting a loan to compensating his workers was more difficult today.
Then there’s the cost of health insurance. Both the government and Trump voters agree premiums under the Affordable Care Act are going up.
“I got my new Obamacare rates for my business yesterday, a 42 percent increase. It’s just not acceptable,” Lloyd said.
He said his two employees, for whom he contributes toward their health care under the Affordable Care Act, were still voting for Democrat Hillary Clinton. “It didn’t change their support, but I pay most of the bill.”
I wouldn’t say our economic situation has improved over the last number of years, but it hasn’t deteriorated.
Trump supporter and retiree Tony Turchetta
Even as the retirement accounts of most Americans who have them are growing, Trump voters agree with the Republican nominee’s warning that the stock market is a house of cards ready to crumble.
“I think we are in an economic bubble,” said Bob Ziringer of Murrayville, Pennsylvania, who had owned domestic car dealerships and now invests in real estate. “The stock market is inflated . . . earnings are not that good.”
Ziringer, sporting a gold chain and a long-sleeve “Deplorables” shirt, is a successful businessman. He said he’d taken much of his savings out of the stock market, and he and his wife, Donna, invest in condos and other real estate on Florida’s Gulf Coast, planning to move soon to Venice, near Bradenton.
“Donald Trump has been one of our mentors from afar for many years, and if it has been good for him,” said Ziringer, his wife nodding in agreement, it’ll be good for them too.
I don’t like what the economy has done over the last eight years, and the next four, if Hillary gets in, will be more of the same.
Michael Vranek, 72, a real-estate veteran and Trump supporter
Retired engineer Jim Gillett shared Trump’s criticism of the Federal Reserve for keeping its benchmark interest rate low.
It’s kept borrowing costs for car loans and mortgages quite cheap since 2008. But it’s also served as incentive for investors to take risks in the stock market. That favors volatile stocks over bonds, helping younger workers with retirement plans. But it hurts retirees, like Gillett, who financial planners encourage to invest in bonds because they carry less risk of losses.
“That’s all building up to a big bubble here,” warned Gillett, 65, who said he’d worked for Westinghouse outside Pittsburgh before retiring. “You’ve got to have the (stock) market speak for itself. . . . Trump’s a businessman. He understands how things work in business.”
Property investor Tina May calls herself a registered Democrat who is voting for Trump. She scoffed at talk of an improving economy.
“I don’t think it’s recovered at all,” May said, adding that she and her husband own more than 100 commercial and residential properties in the area but face overzealous state regulators and a complex federal tax code that left her with a 407-page tax return last year.
Getting his hair styled and braided, Ty Moran, a 20-year-old African-American landscaper, said he was doing well in today’s economy but was still voting for Trump. He liked what others have called a divisive message from Trump about America’s inner cities.
“Why should I bust my ass every day when somebody can earn a living just as easily sitting at home?” Moran asked, praising Trump’s blunt talk.