President-elect Donald Trump described America as a country of exceptional despair through last year’s presidential campaign, once comparing the nation’s health to a friend who is dying of cancer and barely holding on.
The deep pessimism Trump described would presumably take many months or years to recover from. But with Americans’ views of the country and economy closely tied to their political loyalties, polls show partisans rapidly changing their appraisals of the nation’s direction and economy, with Republicans far more upbeat and Democratic hopes in freefall.
The dynamic was stark in a Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week that found the percentage of Democrats saying things in this country are “generally going in the right direction” fell to 19 percent, down from 45 percent in July and 62 percent one year ago. Republicans are now more optimistic, with 45 percent saying the country is going the right way, up from 8 percent this summer after never climbing above 20 percent for seven years.
The large shifts in optimism are understandable given the vastly different policies offered by Hillary Clinton and Trump, and they resemble the dynamic seen after Obama’s election in 2008. Then, Democrats’ optimism about country’s direction grew from 7 percent just before the election to 71 percent by April 2009. Republicans also grew more optimistic in Obama’s early months, but by August only 17 percent thought the country was on the right course, no different than at the start of the year.
The importance of party and presidential loyalty in basic views of the country could be even stronger under Trump, whose own support has stayed sharply partisan through the typical “honeymoon” period after the election. While past presidents enjoyed majority approval ratings from the opposition party and independents leading up to their inauguration, a meager 11 percent of Democrats and 42 percent of independents approve of his presidential transition in the recent Post-ABC poll.
Partisan reassessments of the country extend to views of the economy’s health — Quinnipiac University polls before and after the election show a dramatic turnabout. The percentage of Democratic registered voters saying the economy is “getting better” ticked down from 50 percent in May to 43 percent this month, but the share of Republicans saying the same rocketed from 7 percent before the election to 41 percent now, a 34-point swing that nearly eclipsed optimism among Democrats. A Pew Research Center poll found Republicans’ economic predictions for the economy’s performance in the next year catapulted past Democrats’.
Partisans have not yet completely traded places in their current assessments of the economy, with the Post-ABC poll finding 71 percent of Democrats saying the economy is “excellent” or “good” as Obama leaves office, more than double the number of Republicans. This metric could be shifting in the coming months as people identifying with the president’s party have offered consistently more positive views of the economy since early in the George W. Bush administration.
The charts above also tell another important, if disheartening, story. It was only about two decades ago that Americans' overall views of the country and economy weren't guided so strongly by their party preferences. During Bill Clinton’s two terms in office, there was only a three-point average gap in Democrats’ and Republicans’ positive ratings of the economy, but that surged to 36 percent during George W. Bush’s presidency and stood at 20 percent during Obama’s. This drop in party divide is due to Democrats and Republicans both seeing the economy negatively throughout Obama's first term.
Whatever the actual performance of Trump as president and strength of the country, Americans may have sharply different views.