In an election season about voter anger, one important thing is underappreciated: voter optimism. And in particular, optimism about the economy.
This is not the full story. Or even a very correct story.
Yes, it is true that the economic recovery since the Great Recession has proceeded in fits and starts. And, yes, current economic indicators are somewhat mixed. But voters feel favorable about the economy nevertheless. Here’s some evidence.
The longest-running measure of American attitudes about the economy is the Index of Consumer Sentiment. Below I’ve graphed trends in that index since 1960.
Before I had looked at these data, I was sure I’d find that sentiment was only a bit more positive than it was when Obama took office. But in fact, the upward trend — with the exception of the drop during the 2011 debt ceiling crisis — is striking. This upward trend is also reflected in data from Pew and Gallup.
As of the first quarter of 2016, even with a slight downturn in the second and third quarters of 2015, consumer sentiment was as positive as it had been since the mid-2000s. It was also as positive as it had been in the mid-1980s during the recovery from the recession of 1981-1982. For example, the value of consumer sentiment at the end of 1983, as Ronald Reagan’s reelection campaign was gearing up, was 91.6. In the first three months of 2015, it was almost exactly the same: 91.5.
In other words, consumer sentiment is as positive as it was at the beginning of the election year when Reagan argued that it was “Morning in America.”
But is this positive view really shared by all Americans? For example, what about the working class?
Since 1980, the Index of Consumer Sentiment has reported separately for income terciles. Below is that graph:
Unsurprisingly, the higher your income, the most positive you feel. But the upward trend is the same in every group.
In fact, there is now a smaller gap between the views of the highest and lowest income terciles than there was under the previous presidents. What is distinctive about the Obama years — especially compared with the Reagan years — is how small the gap is between income groups. The average gap between upper- and lower-income groups from 1981-88 was 21.3 points. From 2009-2015, it was 13.4 points. This most recent gap is also lower than during the administrations of George H.W. Bush (14.7), Bill Clinton (16.7) and George W. Bush (18.4).
These upward trends among lower-income people are all the more striking because, as of 2014, their income had not recovered as much from the Great Recession as had the incomes of the relatively wealthy. One explanation for this involves the frame of reference in the Index of Consumer Sentiment, combined with the most recent trends in family incomes. The index asks respondents to evaluate their financial situation compared with a year ago. And as of 2014, the trend in incomes in the previous year was positive for almost every income group. Even if family incomes had not fully recovered from the recession, they were recovering nonetheless.
These short-term trends are especially important because of how the economy typically matters in elections. Previous research shows that voters are much more sensitive to election-year trends in the economy than its long-term performance. This myopia means that even if many Americans’ incomes were below their pre-recession levels, the positive trend would be more electorally consequential.
These trends in consumer sentiment are not the end of the story, of course. What is equally striking about this election year is how little this growing economic optimism has affected broader assessments of the direction of the country or even presidential approval — although that may be changing now, as Obama’s approval has increased in the past four months or so.
So anger — at least among some voters — is clearly real. But to focus on anger to the exclusion of other, more positive sentiments creates a misleading portrait of this electorate.