A poll volunteer hands out an "I Voted" sticker during the 2016 U.S. presidential election in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
A poll volunteer hands out an "I Voted" sticker during the 2016 U.S. presidential election in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Nick Oxford/Reuters

A new study suggests that many Americans’ dissatisfaction and lack of optimism had a role in electing President Trump.

Like more than half of American voters, I woke up severely depressed the morning after Election Day 2016. As my wife and I wiped the tears from our eyes, she turned to me and said: “As terrible as we feel, can you imagine what the backlash would have been if the election had gone the other way?” Her comments reflect a basic reality: For large numbers of Americans, happiness and well-being increasingly turn on who is elected.

That intuition is confirmed in newly released polling data from Gallup that focuses on the link between partisan voting and well-being. Gallup’s analysis is part of a study done in partnership with researchers at the Yale School of Medicine and the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, and originally published in the journal PLOS ONE. The study finds that the places that swung most for Trump were those whose residents had the lowest levels of improvement in their happiness or life satisfaction under the Obama administration, whereas the places that swung most for Hilary Clinton saw among the highest levels of improvement in well-being during that same time.

These findings are based on more than 175,000 interviews (conducted in 2016) with Americans in more than 3,000 counties, representing all 50 states and Washington, D.C.

It is widely believed that Trump tapped into increased feelings of anger and anxiety, particularly among white working-class voters outside of large urban areas. But like the presumption that the results of the 2016 election were about economic hardship, this seems to be myth more than reality.

Counties that experienced the biggest surge in Trump voters were not appreciably more likely to have residents who reported higher levels of anger and worry. In fact, counties that went more for Clinton actually had slightly larger shares of residents who said they experienced high degrees of anger and worry than those that swung the most toward Trump, as the table below shows. That said, the counties that swung the most toward Clinton also had slightly higher levels of happiness and enjoyment than those that swung the most for Trump.

Data by Gallup. Chart by Madison McVeigh/CityLab

(Note: As seen in the rows of the table, the researchers grouped U.S. counties into six clusters based on the change in their vote for president from 2012 to 2016. The spectrum ranges from a gain of more than 10 percentage points for Republican voters in 2016 to a Democratic gain of more than 10 points.)

The fact that there is no observable relationship between negative day-to-day emotions and political shifts seems to contradict the notion that high levels of anger, stress, and worry are what led to Trump’s election.

What the research shows instead is that it’s how people think about the bigger picture of their lives, and not just their daily experiences, that drove the big vote swings of 2016. Indeed, the counties that saw the largest jump in votes for the Republican presidential candidate between 2012 and 2016 were made up of residents who also reported the lowest levels of both satisfaction with their current lives and optimism about the future.

Furthermore, residents of counties that saw the biggest surge in Republican voting didn’t just report lower levels of satisfaction with their current and future lives; they reported lower levels of improvement on these measures since 2012, even though both have improved among all adults nationwide over the same period. By contrast, counties that saw the largest jump in votes for the Democratic candidate reported above-average levels on both metrics.

The table below shows the share of residents who expressed high levels of satisfaction with their current lives as well as high levels of optimism about the future, across these six clusters of voters. In the counties where the 2016 vote swung Republican by 10 or more percentage points from 2012, only 61 percent of residents reported a high level of satisfaction with their current life, and 58 percent reported high levels of optimism for the future. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the counties where the vote swung Democratic by 10 or more percentage points, 73 percent of residents reported a high level of satisfaction with their current life and 72 percent reported a high level of optimism for the future.

In the table below, the column marked “Current life satisfaction” describes the percentage of people who ranked their current life satisfaction between 7 and 10 on a scale of 1 to 10. The “Future life optimism” column shows the percentage of people who ranked their optimism about the future between 8 and 10.

Data by Gallup. Chart by Madison McVeigh/CityLab

The same pattern comes through in the next table, which charts the percentage change in current life satisfaction and in optimism for the future across these six major voting groups.

Data by Gallup. Chart by Madison McVeigh/CityLab

In counties where Trump increased the Republican share of votes by more than 10 percent, current life satisfaction improved by just 1.7 percent, and optimism for the future improved by just 1.6 percent. But in counties where Clinton gained more than 10 percent over Obama, current life satisfaction had improved by 2.7 percent and optimism for the future by 3 percent.

It is not anger, anxiety, or worry that lead to big vote swings, but a lingering feeling of unhappiness and a lack of optimism about the future. This kind of unhappiness with current conditions and unease about what the future holds appears to shape how people vote.

The connection between unhappiness and vote swings is something for politicians, pundits, and all Americans to be aware of, especially in America’s current climate of declining happiness. According to another Gallup poll from earlier this year, America saw the largest year-over-year drop in well-being between 2016 and 2017 in the 10 years that Gallup has tracked this data. If Democrats want to recapture the House of Representatives in 2018 and win back the presidency in 2020, it is this declining happiness that they have to confront.

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