clock menu more-arrow no yes

Sanders and Trump really are the candidates of economic pessimism

 Ellen George wears a mask her sister made during a campaign rally for Democratic Party presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
Ellen George wears a mask her sister made during a campaign rally for Democratic Party presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
J Pat Carter/Getty Images

Among the many explanations for the surprising popularity of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump is that they are both channeling the growing economic pessimism Americans are feeling these days. Now, thanks to newly released data from the American National Election Study's 2016 Pilot Study, we can see this in a little clearer detail.

Trump and Sanders, of course, represent very different types of voters, and they offer remarkably different responses to voters' economic anxieties. But both appear to be doing best among those who think the worst about the economy. Democrats who are most economically pessimistic are most enthusiastic about Sanders, and Republicans who are most pessimistic feel most positively about Trump.

Measuring economic pessimism and candidates' favorability

To get a handle on the relationship between candidate support and economic pessimism, I combined four survey questions from the ANES 2016 pilot study into a single measure, giving each respondent an economic pessimism rating from 0 (least pessimistic) to 1 (most pessimistic). The four questions  were:

  1. Compared to now, do you think the nation's economy will be better, about the same, or worse in 12 months?
  2. How much opportunity is there in America today for the average person to get ahead?"
  3. Compared to your parents, do you think it is easier, harder, or neither easier nor harder for you to move up the income ladder?"
  4. Do you think people's ability to improve their financial well-being is now better, worse, or the same as it was 20 years ago?

Both Republicans and Democrats average 0.51 on the pessimism scale. About half of both Republicans and Democrats fall between 0.39 and 0.66 on the scale, indicating that they are mostly equivocal, though perhaps slightly more pessimistic than optimistic (and also that distribution of responses are remarkably similar across parties).

But solid numbers in both parties are decidedly pessimistic. And it is these pessimists who feel most attracted to Trump and Sanders, respectively.

The figure below visualizes the relationship between respondents' level of economic pessimism and their feelings toward the candidates, from 0 to 100. This is based on a classic survey technique called the "feeling thermometer," in which respondents are asked to rate their feelings toward individuals from 0 (very cold) to 100 (very warm). Each dot represents a response, and the marks along the bottom indicate the density of observations at each point on the distribution.

Author analysis of ANES 2016 pilot study data. (Lee Drutman)

Starting with Democrats, we see that as respondents get more pessimistic about the economy, they feel warmer toward Sanders and colder toward Clinton. In other words, economic pessimists prefer Sanders. Economic optimists prefer Clinton.

On the Republican side, Trump emerges as the clear favorite among the most economically pessimistic respondents. But intriguingly, he only distinguishes himself from the competitors among the true pessimists. This is consistent with a recent analysis by political John Sides and Michael Tesler, who found that Trump was doing best among those whose personal finances were doing the worst. (I compare Trump, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio in this analysis because the survey was taken in January 2016, when Rubio was in third place.)

It's also worth noting that the most pessimistic Democrats have increasing affinity for Trump, though he still trails far behind Clinton. Meanwhile, the most pessimistic Republicans really, really hate Clinton.

Drilling down in more detail, we can see a few intriguing differences by gender.

Author analysis of ANES 2016 pilot study data. (Lee Drutman)

One notable difference is that the shift toward Sanders or Trump among the most economically pessimistic is more pronounced among men than it is among women. Sanders enjoys surprisingly high support among pessimistic Republican women, while the most economically pessimistic Democratic men seem to especially dislike Cruz.

A few other differences emerge by looking across age groups.

Author analysis of ANES 2016 pilot study data. (Lee Drutman)

Among Democrats, the younger the respondent, the less pessimism it takes to prefer Sanders to Clinton, though the pattern of economic optimists supporting Clinton more than Sanders is consistent across age groups. Among Republicans, Trump seems to gain the clearest advantage among the 30- to 44-year-old pessimists, and enjoys the widest advantages generally among senior citizen Republicans. Interestingly, support for Rubio falls as economic pessimism rises among all Republican groups except for millennials, suggesting his attempts at positive messaging failed to connect.

In general, there are a few notable differences across different groups in their levels of pessimism. The most pessimistic age group is 45 to 64; Those in the 65-plus group are least pessimistic. Intriguingly, millennial Democratic men are a bit more pessimistic than millennial Republican men, and senior Democratic men are a bit more pessimistic than senior Republican men. Among the other two age groups, Republican men are more pessimistic than Democratic men. Among women, there is almost no difference across parties.

Author analysis of ANES 2016 pilot study data. (Lee Drutman)

One obvious caveat here is that we can't for certain rule out the possibility that how respondents feel about candidates determines how they feel about the economy, rather than vice versa. Both Sanders and Trump have been peddling messages of economic gloom, and their most fervent supporters may just be parroting back those messages. Still, this would be significant in its own way. Economic pessimism has consequences for how individuals behave politically, regardless of its source.

Another caveat is that economic pessimism appears to explain how Democrats feel about their candidates more than it explains how Republicans feel about their candidates. Trump distinguishes himself only among the most pessimistic Republicans. This would suggest that he is not just the candidate of economic pessimism. He is probably also tapping other things, such as white identity or general populism.

Why economic pessimism matters

More and more Americans are feeling pessimistic about the economy. As Thomas Edsall pointed out in a recent column asking the "Why Trump Now?" question, the answer may have something to do with the fact that more and more middle-class households are doing worse and worse. Edsall notes that this is in part because global trade, especially trade with China, has hit those at the bottom of the economic ladder harder. The wage gap among top earners and median earners has been growing steadily. Stable, solid-paying jobs have been disappearing for decades. For those in the bottom half of the distribution, there's little hope of things getting better, since their lived experiences point in the opposite direction.

The big lingering question is what happens if this economic bifurcation continues — if those who are struggling now continue to struggle economically, growing more and more pessimistic as their fortunes and the fortunes of those around them continue to decline. Does this mean deeper splits in the parties and more support for Sanders-like and Trump-like candidates in the future?

Part of this, no doubt, depends on how the parties respond to the lessons of 2016. But given the current state of political economy, it's hard to see how life gets much better for those who are struggling economically. My guess is that this gap widens, shaping future political conflicts within both parties. Even more chaotic times may lie ahead.

Sign up for the newsletter The Weeds

Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.