The many stories about “voter anger” in this election cycle tell of downscale voters — less educated, lower incomes — who feel left behind by the recovery from the Great Recession. Last week, my colleague and collaborator Lynn Vavreck showed why that story is missing something important: partisanship.
Vavreck’s piece, which is based on research that she and I are conducting along with political scientist Michael Tesler, noted that evaluations of the economy are now as positive as they were in 1983 — on the eve of Reagan’s “Morning in America” campaign. Moreover, those evaluations are similar among Americans of all income levels. There are actually smaller class divides in views of the economy now than under several previous presidents.
More important to the story is partisanship. We’ve known for some time that people’s identification with a party affects how they perceive the objective world — even how physically attractive they find other people. The economy is no exception. Except in periods where economic conditions are unambiguous, such as at the height of the Great Recession, there are big — and growing — differences in how Republicans and Democrats view the economy, depending on which party controls the White House.
Here’s a simple illustration of how much partisanship matters and how it matters more than social class. I combined several months of YouGov/Economist surveys in which respondents were asked whether their personal finances were improving, worsening or were about the same. I calculated average responses to that question among Republicans, Democrats and independents in each of five equally sized income groups.
You can see modest differences across income groups: people in the highest income quintile — those making more than $100,000 per year — have somewhat more positive views of their finances than those in lower quintiles. That’s not surprising, and it’s true among Democrats, independents and Republicans alike.
But party has a more significant impact. Democrats and Republicans have strikingly different perceptions of their finances no matter what their income is. In fact, party is so significant that the wealthiest Republicans actually have slightly lower evaluations of their personal finances than do the poorest Democrats.
To put some percentages on that: Among Democrats in the lowest income quintile, 20 percent say they are better off financially than a year ago, 48 percent say they are the same, and 32 percent say they are worse off. Among Republicans in the highest income quintile: 17 percent say they are better off financially, 48 percent say the same, and 35 percent say worse off.
Voter anger is not just about the economy, of course. But many observers have located that anger in people’s experiences with the economy.
But this data and previous research show that those experiences are filtered through a partisan lens. Frustration with the economy is not simply about being poor. It’s about being the party out of the White House.