The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is 2016 the Anger Election? Not quite.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump attends Politics and Eggs in Manchester, N.H., on Nov. 11, 2015. (Cheryl Senter/AP)
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Donald Trump is angry. Bernie Sanders is angry. And Americans think their neighbors are very angry, too.

Except that they're simply not — or at least, not abnormally angry. Despite the rise of two candidates who have embraced the idea of anger, our country simply isn't unusually angry about how things are going in Washington.

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows just 24 percent of Americans describe themselves as "angry" about the way the federal government works. I say "just," because that's actually on the low end of where that number has been in recent years. (An additional 47 percent describe themselves as "dissatisfied but not angry.")

In October 2013, shortly after the end of the government shutdown, 35 percent of Americans said they were angry. On the eve of the 2014 election, in September of that year, the number was 25 percent.

Despite this, the perception of an angry electorate is catching on quickly — thanks in no small part to Trump and Sanders embracing the term.

A Monmouth University poll released Monday showed that 62 percent of Americans think all or most of their fellow Americans are angry at Washington. An NPR headline last week declared: "This Election, Anger And Frustration Aren't Just On The Right." And the New York Times's Upshot blog said that "the biggest cause [of the rise of Ted Cruz and Trump], in my view, is the mind-set of the Republican electorate. It is angrier and more disenchanted than it has been in years."

But the numbers just don't back up any of these assertions. Republicans are angrier, yes, but no more so than they have been in recent years. The 35 percent of Republicans who told the Post-ABC poll that they were angry is par for the course — as is the 12 percent of Democrats who said they were angry. And the fact that about 1 in 8 Democrats are angry can't really be made to account for the rise of Sanders.

What's more, even Trump's supporters aren't exceptionally angry. While Trump gets 37 percent overall in the new Post-ABC poll, he gets 40 percent from those who describe themselves as angry.

Cruz also does slightly better among angry voters, but not overwhelmingly so.

Now, is it possible that people are angrier than they are letting on and telling pollsters? Of course. Anger carries with it negative connotations that many people might not want to think apply to themselves. But even if that's the case, it doesn't account for the fact that the number of Americans who openly profess to being angry hasn't risen. That number would rise if actual anger were also rising.

We are all still trying very hard to understand the rise of Trump, Cruz and Sanders. And there are certainly plenty of new factors at work in the 2016 election — things we have, in large part, been unable to completely nail down even with the Iowa caucuses less than a week away.

But is a rising tide of American anger the root cause? This poll suggests pretty strongly that it's not.