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'Not the economy, stupid': A majority of Americans say 2020 election will be about other issues

Key Points
  • Only 34% of Americans say the next presidential election will be about the economy, according to a new CNBC and Acorns Invest In You survey conducted by SurveyMonkey released Monday.
  • Only 21% of Americans say they are worse off today than they were in 2016 amid a historic low in unemployment, strong consumer spending and a record stock market.
  • Even among Democratic voters, less than 50% believe a Biden, Warren or Sanders presidency would improve their personal financial situation.
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No, "it's not the economy, stupid." At least, not as far as the way a majority of Americans are currently planning to cast their votes in the 2020 presidential election.

Near two-thirds of Americans (61%) say the 2020 election will be about issues other than the economy, according to a CNBC and Acorns Invest in You survey conducted by SurveyMonkey and released Monday.

Residents arrive at their polling place to cast votes in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by by John Sommers II/Getty Images)
John Sommers II | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Amid historically low unemployment, strong consumer spending and a record stock market that President Donald J. Trump cites frequently, the financial security many Americans feel today is leading them to focus on other issues when it comes to the ballot box.

Thirty-four percent of Americans say they will vote on the economy, and that percentage rises with political party taken into account, but not even a majority of Republicans (42%) say the economy will be the main issue in 2020. That figure drops to 27% for Democrats.

At the same time, when asked what issue "matters the most to you right now," jobs and the economy is cited by 24% of Americans, No. 1 among all responses, followed by health care (21%), immigration (15%) and the environment (13%). These are the only issues receiving double-digit percentage support.

The only age groups in which jobs and the economy was not the No. 1 issue was among the youngest Americans (24% of those age 18–24 cited the environment) and the oldest Americans (an equal 21% of Americans 65 and up cited either health care or immigration).

The focus on jobs and the economy right now, but not as an election issue, is not contradictory.

"We've had such a great economy, and it's been great for a long time, so until it changes, people won't have a reason to think or see things differently," said Laura Wronski, senior research scientist at SurveyMonkey.

The findings also correspond to other recent surveys indicating that intense political partisanship has made economics a lesser issue, and that may be compounded by an escalating impeachment process that dominated headlines during the period when this survey was in the field.

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"Jobs and the economy are the most relevant things for people at the end of the day," said Paul West, managing director at Omaha, Nebraska-based Carson Wealth. "It puts food on the table and keeps the rent paid and lights on, but this is the most emotionally charged election that we maybe have ever seen," he said.

The financial advisor, who says he is a big believer in behavior finance and behavioral thinking in general, said the combination of a strong economy and rising impeachment headlines contributes to the current view on the 2020 election.

"Wage growth is a little over 3%, and people are feeling better about that. Unemployment is low, and people feel good about the overall economy. ... One of the things I feel good about is that the personal savings rate is now up to 8.3%. People are feeling better, with more money in a 401(k) or bank accounts. ... They have less stress points in that part of their life."

The survey, conducted Oct. 21–25 using SurveyMonkey's U.S. Census Bureau data-based methodology and platform, examined the money attitudes of 2,776 Americans age 18 and up nationwide.

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Partisan politics and pocketbooks

There is still a big partisan divide over the economy that cannot be ignored.

Republicans are two to three times more likely to say they are better off financially today than they were in 2016 — 66% of Republicans vs. 27% of Democrats. Forty-one percent of Democrats described their financial situation as "about the same."

"If you take a GOP and Democratic respondent that is the same in every other sense — such as age, race, where they live — and the only difference is how they lean politically, that's where partisanship comes in," Wronski said.

She added that the survey question about the 2020 election — the exact wording was "As you may know, Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992 running with the unofficial slogan 'It's the Economy, Stupid.' For you, is the next election mainly about the economy or about other issues?" — presented a binary choice of the economy or everything else, and still 4 in 10 Republicans (42%) cited the economy, which is "a significant minority."

Amber Wichowsky, a political science professor at Marquette University and director of its Democracy Lab, said Trump is underperforming the economy when looking at voters on a national basis. "Given where the economy is, we would expect his approval rating to be higher."

She said the stark divide between Republicans and Democrats in the CNBC survey saying they're "better off" is consistent with a trend political scientists have been trying to understand that shows the economy — historically one of the key drivers in election models — weakening as partisanship increases.

West, whose financial and investing planning is primarily on behalf of high-net-worth individual and families, and business owners and executives, said those who "are on the red side of the party divide" are more favorable on the economic outlook and those on "the blue side" more cautious at the moment.

Thirty-two percent of Democrats said they are worse off than in 2016, but looking ahead to the 2020 election, financial gain is not the main motivator for the majority of Democrats. When asked whether they would be more hopeful about their personal financial situation if a Democratic candidate wins the presidency in 2020, Warren had the most support among survey respondents, with 43%. Biden and Sanders were within the survey's margin of error, with 42% of respondents. More Democrats (50%) say impeachment proceedings against the president would be a net positive for the economy.

Twenty percent of Democrats said they would be more fearful about their personal financial situation if Warren wins; 23% if the winner is Sanders.

That may be less an indicator of concern about the specific policies of the Democratic candidates and more a recognition of how strong the economy and market have been for such a long time already. "We've already jumped so high and done really well, so how much more can you get?" said West. "It's like asking for a second dessert after a really good meal. Do you really want more dessert when you are full? How much fuller can you be?"

The survey was conducted before former New York City Mayor and billionaire businessman Michael Bloomberg announced his intentions to enter the Democratic Party contest.

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Women voters, rural voters and Independents

Wichowsky said this survey and other recent ones show that the 2020 election, at least at this point, does not look like it will be an up-or-down vote on the economy. However, there are key segments of the voting public where economic views, even filtered through partisanship, may prove key, including with rural voters and women voters.

The CNBC survey finds women less optimistic about their finances than men. Among male respondents, 51% said they and their families are better off today than they were in 2016. That figure drops to 38% for female survey respondents. Forty-eight percent of men say they and their families will be better off a year from now; that drops to 39% among women.

"We are seeing the gender gap in economic surveys with men more optimistic about the state of economy," Wichowsky said. She added that women are more likely to be Democrats, but "partisanship does not fully explain it."

In her home state of Wisconsin, a key battleground state for the Electoral College, current polling shows that the election will be tight. But where Trump is polling well is rural communities, which have been hit hard be the trade war and yet are still sticking with the president.

"His approval has not budged, and they are more likely to say tariffs are doing more to help than hurt the U.S. He needs rural voters to turn out for him," Wichowsky said, to combat headwinds such as female voters.

Peter Enns, associate professor of government and executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at Cornell University, said when thinking about the 2020 election those who identify as independent are particularly important because their vote choice is hardest to predict.

Independents were much closer to Republicans in terms of indicating "Jobs and the economy" as the issue that mattered most to them in the CNBC survey (Rep 29%, Ind 27%, Dem 17%). That could lead to a belief that it bodes well for Republicans in 2020, but the survey shows independents sending another message when asked to evaluate the economy. They are much closer to Democrats on the question of being better off today versus 2016 (66% percent of Republicans versus just 37% of Independents and 27% of Democrats.)

"It is interesting that Independents' economic assessments appear closer to Democrats when we consider how respondents view their and their family's financial situation compared with 2016," said Enns, but he stressed that to have further confidence in these patterns, the data would need to hold up across multiple polls.

Sixty-two percent of Independents say the 2020 election will be mainly about issues other than the economy, putting them in between Republicans (57%) and Democrats (70%) on this question.

Recession fears and elections years

Even as Americans are showing their economic confidence, fears about a recession are high.

Sixty-five percent of Americans say a recession is likely in the next year — 84% of Democrats, 72% of Independents and 46% of Republicans.

"With markets hitting all-time highs, consumer confidence up ... things do look pretty good in the near term," said Doug Boneparth, president of New York financial planning firm Bona Fide Wealth and a member of the CNBC Financial Advisor Council. "But the getting has been good for so long, everyone knows we're in the 11th inning of an economic cycle. You don't need expertise in finance to understand that. It's been a decade or plus of no recession. So it's not an issue until it is an issue," he said.

Financial advisors said Americans are making the right decisions outside of politics to prepare for an economic downturn. The survey showed that 47% of Americans said they are paying down debt, 45% cutting household spending and 34% growing an emergency fund to prepare for a possible recession. Those numbers are consistent across political affiliations.

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"I am happy to see these steps making it to the top of the list," Boneparth said. He said growing the emergency fund should be No. 1 overall, because having liquidity in the event of a job loss or other economic headwind is more important than paying off debt like a mortgage or student loans ahead of schedule — double-digit revolving credit card debt would be the exception.

Carson said it was encouraging to see the youngest Americans — in the 18–24 and 25–34 age groups — focused on growing emergency funds, at 39% and 37%, respectively.

"It's a time in life when responsibility has instantaneously jumped higher. The younger and older millennials amassing greater amounts of liquidity would really serve them well when avoiding the risks associated with an economic slowdown," Boneparth said.

Younger Americans are the most concerned about a recession — most having never been an adult during one — with 71% of those age 18–24 and 73% of those age 25–34 saying a recession is likely in the next year.

West said the one politically motivated financial decision no American should make is pulling out of the stock market due to an election. "In client conversations I have had recently in several different cities, so many people are saying, 'An election year is coming up. Should I take my money out of the market?' They are letting behavioral biases win out, and of course my answer is, 'If you have a long-term plan in place, you never want to take money out.'"

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CHECK OUT: 4 places besides Costco where you can save money buying household essentials in bulk via Grow with Acorns+CNBC.

Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.

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