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Here’s why the economy may not ultimately decide the 2020 election

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In many ways, the American economy is still in decent shape after a summer marked by fears of a recession — a sentiment that still hasn't entirely faded.

The Commerce Department on Wednesday released preliminary data showing gross domestic product had risen by 1.9 percent for the third quarter. It was a slight beat relative to the 1.6% estimate economists had forecasted, indicating strong consumer spending that helped offset negative effects from President Donald Trump's trade war.

Just before the data was released, Trump tweeted once again that his presidency ushered in the "greatest economy in US history!" It was characteristic hyperbole on a claim that doesn't hold water — particularly when you compare GDP growth to previous administrations and bring other economic metrics like job growth into the picture.

GDP Growth over the last two decades.

Business Insider/Andy Kiersz, data from FRED

But for now, America is mired in a period of languid economic growth, given a sharp decrease in business investment and companies pulling back on hiring in a period of unpredictability.

"As the benefits of fiscal stimulus fade and trade policy uncertainty and slowing global demand remain headwinds to business investment, U.S. GDP growth should continue to moderate in coming quarters," Sam Bullard, chief economist at Wells Fargo, wrote in a note for clients.

If the economy continues demonstrating sluggish growth heading into next year, the 2020 election may end up hinging on something else: partisanship. And contrasting interpretations of the nation's economic health could decide whether Trump remains in the White House for another four years.

"The predictive power of the economy is weakening as polarization increases," Amber Wichowsky, a political scientist at Marquette University, told The New York Times. "Partisans have a strong desire to interpret the economy in a way that benefits their 'team.'"

The Times also reported that consumer confidence — a measure of how Americans feel about current and future economic conditions — is far higher among Republicans than Democrats. Among GOP voters, its hovered around 80% since April, while its tracked around half at 40% for Democrats. Independents are between them at around 50%.

Republicans and Democrats have dueling views of the economy

That Republicans and Democrats can look at a set of economic facts and come to dueling conclusions isn't new. There were similar dynamics at play during the Obama administration, when Democrats tended to be more upbeat about the economy compared to Republicans, according to YouGov, a polling organization.

Now its flipped with a GOP president in the White House — and Republicans are more likely to have favorable views of Trump's economic stewardship and its future.

The Pew Research Center noted in late July that positive economic attitudes among Republicans surged since Trump took office and that "the increase in positive economic views since early 2017 has come almost entirely among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents."

Though many of the bellwethers undercut the president's economic message, Trump and his Republican allies have pointed to the rock-bottom unemployment rate and rising wages as the product of his policies.

But Democrats have assailed the costs of the trade war with China, which has led to farmers losing billions of dollars in sales and helped lead to a slump in manufacturing. And they've also argued the Republican tax cuts favored the wealthy at the expense of the middle class.

Trump remains the wildcard as polarization deepens with a brutal fight over his impeachment underway. There's also the threat of a recession, which could thrust the economy center stage into a Democratic primary that has largely focused on curtailing income inequality and proposing mechanisms to redistribute economic gains more fairly among Americans.

Should the economy experience a more pronounced slump or even an outright recession, political scientists say that would erode confidence among voters regardless of their partisan affiliation. But as the economy slumps along, the views of voters towards it are more likely to be colored by their attitudes towards the president.