As the U.S. prepares to enter its 125th month of economic expansion—the longest in its history—and as Wall Street sages assure the public that any ominous sign of recession can remain safely ignored, American voters have taken on their own set of criteria to measure the health of the economy: political affiliation and cable news preference.
Two surveys out this week found that when it comes to feelings about the economy, voters prefer to go with their gut over hard data. The polls complicate the popular notion that President Donald Trump may have trouble winning another four-year stint in the Oval Office if GDP sours.
About 32% of Americans credit the president for the most recent economic expansion, which began under former President Barack Obama, according to Bankrate.com’s latest Experts vs. Everyday Americans poll—but only 13% of experts agree with that prognosis. Credit for the boom fell mostly along partisan lines—nearly six in 10 Republicans gave credit to Trump, and nearly 45% of Democrats gave the credit to Obama.
Only 17% of the “everyday Americans” surveyed said that the current era of growth had nothing to do with either figure, but 38% of experts said that it didn’t have much to do with any commander-in-chief.
Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst for Bankrate, says he’s seen the stratification of economic views and political affiliation grow throughout the Trump presidency.
“There is seldom getting away from the fractious nature of politics in our country, and that all too often informs a portion of individual outlook on the economy,” he told Fortune. “We’ve seen this previously in [the Trump] administration, that economic outlook does tend to break along political lines.”
The partisan nature of today’s politics, he said, makes it difficult to separate feelings about the economy from purely political ones.
Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who previously worked as press secretary and senior spokesperson for Hillary Clinton, told Fortune that he no longer considers economic outlook as a factor in elections because it has become so partisan.
“We’ve seen now for a number of years that people’s valuation of the overall health of the economy is increasingly a proxy for approval of the party in power,” he said. “It’s no longer people’s evaluation of the economy, it’s the evaluation of the team in power. The big difference right now is that Republican voters may say the economy is doing well but they don’t believe their personal economy is doing well.”
A Morning Consult poll released Friday found that those who approve of the president’s performance have a significantly rosier outlook on the economy than those who don’t. The survey measured overall sentiment by using an index with a 100 line to separate negative and positive outlook. Those who thought the president was doing a good job clocked in at 136, while those who did not sat at a far gloomier 88.
When adjusted for media consumption, Fox News viewers had a positive outlook at 139, while those who preferred the left-leaning MSNBC measured a meager 89.
It’s easy to manipulate any economic data to fit into preconceived politically-biased notions, said Morning Consult analyst John Leer. News anchors can tout record-low unemployment numbers, while dismissing labor force participation rates. Tweets by the president, claiming that he’s responsible for the “best economy ever” and that Democrats want to end capitalism, go out to his 66.2 million followers without a fact check.
The divergence between economic outlook and political leanings are often overlooked when predicting election outcomes.
“Different news outlets cover events differently,” Leer told Fortune. “When we look at our data we see dramatically different views of the economy based on news consumption habits.”
In this new reality, he said, surveys of consumer sentiment often tell us more about the economic climate going in a presidential election cycle than hard data can.
“It’s important to not just look at the unemployment rate, because that may not reflect how people feel,” Leer said. “Those feelings are often reflected in indicators for consumer confidence and later in voting habits.”
In early October, Nobel Prize-winning Yale economist Robert Schiller released a book on narrative economics based on the preposition that the stories people tell can affect economic outcomes. Economic narratives, he said, may be underlying drivers of outcomes: If Republicans believe that the president is creating the greatest economy ever, then maybe he is, and maybe that leads him to a successful run in 2020.
But, there are limits on the stories we tell and spirit animals can only override fundamentals for so long.
“At some point it doesn’t matter how confident people feel if they’re unemployed and struggling to put food on the table,” said Leer. Fox News watchers, he said, are still overwhelmingly positive about the economy but their numbers have been falling since July, perhaps a bad sign for the president.
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