Anger is clearly the buzzword of the 2016 presidential campaign, especially in the GOP. Google the word with Republican and, like me, you might get more than 24 million hits (vs. 606,000 when matched with Democrat).
When asked on exit surveys about their “feelings on the federal government,” many GOP voters said they were “angry” or “dissatisfied.” Democrats were rarely asked the same question, although I suspect if they were asked about Wall Street or income inequality, many would have been angry.
Despite the resulting headlines, I grew suspicious about these numbers representing the total electorate. So, in March, I asked on my website, which better describes your mood, “angry” or “hopeful”? Among the 1,666 who voted, 32 percent said the former and 68 percent the latter. The poll was unscientific, but a week later, Lynne Vavreck, a political science professor at UCLA, challenged the conventional wisdom about angry voters in a New York Times column.
She cited the Index of Consumer Sentiment, one of the longest-running measures of Americans’ views on the economy, and the General Social Survey, which, since 1972, has asked Americans to rate their overall level of happiness. Her data challenged the narrative that the nation is in a funk. For example, one GSS report, published in April 2015, found that 32.5 percent of people in 2014 said they were very happy, an increase of 3.7 percentage points since 2010.
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If that’s true, what explains this disconnect?
I argue it’s indicative of the outsized role played by those among us with the most fervor. Pew Research Center has documented the influence of passion, noting that it rests on the ends of the political spectrum.
But if there is a new “silent majority” in the nation, its members are not Tea Party activists or millennials feeling the Bern, but the tens of millions of Americans who are not angry, but thus far not engaged in the election. Consider that only 16 percent of voters participated in a primary or caucus in 2012.
My argument is that those who have participated, especially on the right, are over-representative of anger, and Donald Trump has been the beneficiary. Of the 42 percent of Iowa Republican voters who said they were “angry” at the federal government – Trump won 30 percent of them, when he still had roughly a dozen competitors. In New Hampshire, 39 percent said they were “angry” and 44 percent of them backed Trump. He took the same percentage of the 40 percent of “angry” voters in South Carolina.
The good news for those of us not piqued is that there aren’t enough angry voters (alone) to win the White House. No doubt you’ve heard that Trump received more votes than any Republican running for president. That’s true. Trump received 13.9 million votes. But he also set a record for the most votes cast against a top vote-getter – more than 17 million voted for another choice.
According to the Pew Research Center, roughly 57.6 million people, or 28.5 percent of eligible voters, cast a ballot in the 2016 primaries. Trump won 24.1 percent of the total votes cast, which is only 6.9 percent of eligible voters’ votes. Trump needs to build significantly on the nearly 14 million who have already voted for him. Consider that four years ago, President Obama won reelection with 65.9 million votes.
I don’t deny anger exists or that it could be a vehicle for Trump’s continued success. But I want to give comfort to the contented by arguing that we still have time to turn down the tone.
But time is short. Anger is metastasizing, and it’s time for the rest of us to take control of the political debate.