But other than that, how are things? The electorate has come a long way from Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America,” a new Washington Post/ABC News poll shows. About three times as many respondents say America is in retreat as do those who say it has grown greater, and 68% believe that they have lost any influence over the federal government. It’s a pessimistic pall that largely drives the 2016 election cycle:
Two-thirds of Americans feel they have little or no influence over the actions of the federal government. Forty-five percent say the country’s greatness is ebbing. As many see voter fraud as commonplace. A third aren’t confident that votes in the presidential election will be counted fairly. And a third say people like them are treated unfairly in this country.
The results of this poll, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates, mark the extent to which underlying views of the state of the nation interact with political preferences. In some ways, a pessimists vs. optimists election.
The 1980 election was a pessimists vs. optimists election, too, and on essentially the same broader points — global humiliation, government encroachment, and “malaise.” Republicans in 1980 offered similar criticism about the direction of the country, but took the sunnier road on the campaign trail. They extolled the small-D democratic institutions of the country and made Americans the focus of their optimism, while Democrats argued then as now that we needed to redefine American greatness in the context of globalization.
In this poll, some of those positions appear to have flipped, but there are still echoes of 1980 within it:
Donald Trump’s use of the slogan Make America Great Again was no accident. Neither has been his tone on the campaign trail. His acceptance speech at the Republican convention, one of his most effective appearances, relied on that pessimism and anger over perceptions of retreat and failure. Trump promised to deliver America from that path by claiming to be its last hope. He calculated his rhetoric to resonate with the mood of this portion of the electorate.
However, the chart above suggests that this might put a ceiling on Trump’s appeal. ABC’s analysis presents the numbers for the glass-half-full electorate:
That said, just more than half of the public feels the United States is as great (37 percent) or greater (16 percent) than it’s been in the past; 64 percent think people like them are treated fairly and 74 percent say that the quality of life for people like them has either held steady (31 percent) or improved (43 percent). Each of these groups broadly favors Clinton over Trump.
She leads by a vast 69-point margin among likely voters who feel the country is greater than it was in the past, but also by a whopping 53 points among those who feel the country’s greatness hasn’t changed. She’s +23 among those who feel that their quality of life is better than their parents’ generation and +19 among those who think people like them are treated fairly.
This prompts two questions. First, did this poll accurately capture the breadth of the disaffected? And second, does it indicate which will be more likely to turn out for each candidate? Will those who are angry over perceived retreat turn out in greater numbers? For that matter, would those who believe that America is as good or better than before really put their enthusiasm into the dynastic candidate of a corrupt party establishment?
Overall, the poll has Hillary Clinton up only five points on Trump, 46/41. Given their sunny-side analysis, one would have expected it to be higher.