The 2016 election has opened an extraordinary chasm between supporters of the two leading candidates over the direction of the country, well beyond the divisions that existed in the 2008 campaign, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
According to the poll, 8 in 10 registered voters who support Republican Donald Trump say that the United States is less great than in the past, compared with just about 2 in 10 of those who support Democrat Hillary Clinton. Among all voters, 47 percent say the United States is less great than in the past, while 35 percent say it has been about the same and 17 percent say the country is greater than before.
In this sense, the question of whether America needs to be made "great again" has become a litmus test for whether voters back Trump or Clinton.
Trump supporters are also more downbeat when asked whether people like them receive fair treatment in the country or have worse lives than previous generations, although the differences with Clinton voters are far smaller.
The division between Clinton and Trump backers mirrors the candidates' appraisals of the country's progress. Trump has made "Make America Great Again" his campaign theme and often has described the country in dystopian terms — as a nation where workers are falling behind, crime is increasing and elected leaders routinely lose in negotiations with other countries. Clinton has portrayed the country more positively, praising President Obama for helping the economy climb out of the pit of the Great Recession but emphasizing the need for more efforts to boost American families.
To some degree, the assessments may also reflect varying economic conditions in red and blue states. New data released Thursday by the Census Bureau show that the median income was 20 percent lower last year in states that have consistently voted for Republicans in recent presidential elections, compared with states that have consistently voted Democratic.
The results also probably reflect how supporters of Clinton and Trump have adopted their candidate's story line of the nation's trajectory after nearly eight years with Obama in office. After all, voters aligned in very different ways at the end of Republican George W. Bush's presidency, perhaps partly reflecting how voters judge the country when their preferred party is out of power.
In 2008, backers of Democratic nominee Obama were more negative about the country’s direction than voters who supported Republican John McCain. A June 2008 NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll showed 69 percent of Americans saying that the nation was in a “state of decline.” That viewpoint peaked at 77 percent among Obama supporters, who disapproved most of Bush’s administration, while 57 percent of McCain backers said the same.
Back then, the country was confronting an ongoing war in Iraq and a weakening economy, with rising unemployment.
Current appraisals of the country’s greatness mirror ratings for Obama’s presidency. In the Post-ABC poll, 88 percent of Trump voters disapprove of the way Obama is handling his job, while 90 percent of Clinton voters approve. And among Trump voters who disapprove, fully 89 percent say he has “done real damage to the country,” a stark assessment.
A separate question in the Post-ABC poll asked whether life for “people like you” is better, worse or about the same as for previous generations. A 44 percent plurality of all voters said life is better for them than past generations, while 29 percent said it is similar to the past and 25 percent thought it was worse.
Although majorities of voters for both major-party candidates say that life is at least the same or better than past generations, Trump voters were more than twice as likely as Clinton voters to say that life for people like them is worse than past generations, 36 to 15 percent.
The poll finds larger divisions among white voters by social and economic class, with 57 percent of white upper-middle class Americans saying people like them are "better off" than past generations compared with 41 percent of middle-class whites and 30 percent who identify as working class.
Nonwhite Americans are more upbeat about progress regardless of class — 46 percent of those identifying as working class say life is better than past generations, as do 56 percent of those who call themselves middle class. The survey did not interview a large enough number of upper-middle class nonwhite respondents to report results.
Americans who lament generational decline say they do not feel alone in their struggles. Over 8 in 10 say that people in other groups are also falling behind, while less than 2 in 10 say other groups are making gains.
The smallest divide between Clinton and Trump voters comes on the issue of fairness. More than 7 in 10 registered voters who support Clinton say they do receive fair treatment, as do just under 6 in 10 Trump supporters. Racial divisions are larger on this question — 57 percent of African Americans say they do not receive fair treatment in this country, compared with 33 percent of Hispanics and 30 percent of whites.
The Post-ABC poll was conducted September 5-8 among a random national sample of 1,002 adults reached on cellular and landline phones. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points for overall results; the error margin is four points among the sample of 842 registered voters.