How a Recession Will Impact the 2020 Election

The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic is having a far-reaching impact on many aspects of daily life worldwide. It is particularly damaging to economies around the globe. In the United States, that is particularly evident. Prolonged business closures, a stock market crash, and other financial setbacks, such as a reduction in travel and tourism, have all combined to create economic instability. Many experts are predicting a prolonged recession, as a result.

A recession does not solely have an impact on commerce. It also changes how Americans react to certain situations and events, such as elections. In this case, a recession may have a profound impact on the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. To understand the role the recession may play on the outcome of the election, it is important to examine several angles. Even then, it is impossible to predict the exact impact perfectly, but here are a few recession-related points that may make a difference at the polls.

History Shows Particular Recession-Election Patterns

According to a report compiled by Citigroup, Americans have historically tended to elect a new president, as opposed to an incumbent president during a recession period, at least in recent history. Several new presidents have faced recessions in their first years of office since 1920. Out of the most recent 11 recessions, eight have occurred during the first year a president was in office.

Another historical pattern indicates Americans often elect Democrats during times of economic instability. Republicans are more often elected during periods when Americans feel more economically stable. However, there have been some exceptions, such as when Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter were elected. Therefore, it is important to consider historical trends while realizing they will not necessarily definitely hold true in the future.

There Is a Relationship Between Economic Status and Blame/Credit

A March 2020 report released by the Washington Post showed there is a direct relationship between nationwide economic status and how a sitting president's party is perceived. Americans are less likely to vote for any member of the president's party at any level when the economy is in decline. Since the 2020 COVID-19 crisis has already caused a definite economic decline, President Trump's chances of winning the 2020 election are already reduced. If the United States slips into a full recession before the election, his chances of winning may slip further, based on data released by several sources, including the Post.

Pre-Existing Perceptions Matter for an Incumbent President

A recession can potentially be a major factor impacting how some Americans vote in 2020. However, other Americans may simply view it as a tipping point or a proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. Voters who already have negative perceptions of President Trump may see a recession as one more reason not to re-elect him. Several previous presidents have failed to be re-elected due to negative perceptions that already existed when they ran for second terms. Among them were:

  • George Bush Sr.
  • Jimmy Carter
  • Gerald Ford
  • Herbert Hoover
  • William Taft 

In contrast, a candidate who has not previously held the office has no history as president. Therefore, his or her record as the leader of the country is a blank slate. That is one more reason why many American voters choose not to vote for an incumbent president when an election falls during a recession. Those voters are willing to take a leap into the unknown with the hope of a positive change to come. The alternative of re-electing the current leader may seem like resigning themselves to four more years of the current situation.

In President Trump's case, his reputation has been somewhat tarnished since he first took office. For that reason, a recession may be particularly bad for his campaign. An incumbent president who was already well liked across the board and portrayed by the media in a more positive light might be able to better withstand the impact a recession might have on his or her re-election chances.

There Are Always Other Factors at Play

Despite the above points, the outcome of any election has some factors that simply cannot be quantified  or predicted. Even if the United States is in the middle of a recession during the 2020 election, that recession will only be one part of a larger political picture. COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter Movement, and other major events may also influence election outcomes. As past elections have shown, multiple factors go into the choices voters make at the polls. For example, in 2008 the United States was in the midst of the Great Recession. However, the war in Iraq was also raging. It is difficult to know how much of the lean toward electing Democratic candidates that year was due to each of those factors or others. Thus, speculation only provides a rough estimate of how the recession may change election outcomes, both at the presidential level and at state or local levels.