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I was going to start off with today a post-mortem on last night’s presidential debate but decided to wait until we get what are billed as the complete TV ratings – which are scheduled to be released later today. In my view, until we get the first reliable polls, these will be crucial to answering the question of who won in the all important minds of the voters (as opposed to the chattering classes). I’ll explain what I mean in that post, so stay tuned!

In the meantime, I was really struck by the results – and the interpretations – of a new poll on how Americans view the high profile issues of the economy and trade. All else equal, at this point, these seem to be the main determinants of both the upcoming presidential and Congressional election results.

The survey was commissioned by the publication Politico and the Harvard University school of public health. (Go figure!) And when it comes to Americans’ assessment of the country’s performance since the financial crisis peaked in 2008, the findings look like good news for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. That’s no major surprise. What was more unexpected was how bipartisan the downbeat views are, and how that finding was soft-pedaled in the summary article.

Respondents were asked whether they thought that the U.S. economy had gotten “better” since the downturn in 2008, “worse,” or “stayed the same.” “Better” won with a 41 percent plurality, “worse” came in at 32 percent, and “stayed the same” was the answer of 24 percent. So that seems fairly encouraging for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who served in the administration that’s been responsible for the economy since 2009. At least, it seems, there’s no mass political uprising brewing against the Obama record.

But think about 2008. That wasn’t the run-of-the-mill “downturn” suggested by the poll’s bland wording. That was perfect economic storm time, a period when the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy in particular nearly triggered a global financial and economic meltdown. In addition, the second half of the year in particular was also a time when Americans were losing not only their jobs but their homes in droves. So one in four respondents seeing no change since then is stunning enough. Even more so is the belief of nearly one in three that matters are worse.

Nor should you put too much stock in the article’s claim of “a clear partisan split on this question” with Democrats more upbeat than Republicans. It’s true that 67 percent of Democrats (versus only 21 percent of Republicans) perceived an improving economy since 2008. But 32 percent saw the situation just as bad or worse than during that crisis period. Just as important, a total of 62 percent of independents gave the expansion (which technically began in mid-2009) that kind of lousy grade.

The big questions that still arise, though, from these findings:

>How do Americans perceive their own economic and financial circumstances, as opposed to the country’s? Usually they feel much better about their own lots, and the latest Conference Board consumer confidence survey supports that proposition. It just hit a nine-year high.

>Which of these judgments will matter more in the voting booth?

>Will Americans who are down on the economy place more trust in Trump or Clinton to set things right?

>How will these and other economic poll results break down by state – which of course will influence the all-important Electoral College count?

Meanwhile, the Politico-Harvard survey produced several important results on the trade policy front. First, it found that although only 29 percent of the public has heard of President Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Pacific Rim trade agreement that’s currently before Congress, 63 percent of those familiar with the agreement oppose it. And 68 percent disagree that Congress should vote on the matter in a lame-duck session of Congress – which the president is pushing for.

At the same time, such trade soundings have been all over the board lately – see this poll released a little earlier from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs for some contrasting results.

Much more interesting to me was the genuinely partisan split – which both surveys found. As Politico described it, Americans who call themselves Republicans have swung not only to being sharply critical of U.S. trade policy, but decidedly more critical than self-identified Democrats.

In GOP ranks, the Politico-Harvard poll found that 47 percent of respondents said that free trade agreements have hurt their communities and fully 85 percent called them net job killers. The comparable results for Democrats? Only about 25 percent and 50 percent.

My big takeaway here: “The party of the common man” may now be a misnomer for the Democrats. And interestingly, an analyst from the Cato Institute, which disagrees with nearly all my views on trade policy and even politics, concurs. He told a Politico reporter that the trade shift 

might also reflect a shift in party affiliation among voters [especially among] ‘less-educated white males, blue-collar folks who probably used to support Democrats, but who are now Republicans. For cultural reasons, I think they are more prone to subscribe to the characterization of trade that Trump likes to use, the sort of nationalist view of us versus them.’”

Conversely, more and more Democrats look to be college students and other younger Americans (who have relatively limited experience in the job market or who take more cosmopolitan views of the global economy); government employees and workers in low-wage service industries (who face no foreign competition); and minority citizens (who have never been terribly active on the trade front but who should be).

Of course, polls shouldn’t be taken as gospel, especially this year – even when they agree. But if you look at enough of them, and read a bit between the lines, you’ll probably wind up more informed about American politics, not less. So I’ll be keeping an eye on them for the rest of this campaign – and you should, too, if you’ve got the time.

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