Warning: This presidential campaign may be harmful to your emotional well-being.
Seriously, there is some evidence that just as the country was starting to feel good about itself, the presidential campaign, while drawing intense interest, is turning into the year’s biggest buzz killer.
Last September, 50% of people responding to a CNN/ORC International poll said they believed that “things are going” either “very well” or “fairly well” in the country. It was the first time that at least half of the poll respondents felt that good about the state of the nation since April, 2013, and only the sixth time that measure, which is asked every few months, cracked the 50% mark since August, 2006.
It was not a fluke. Two months later, 52% of people said things were going “very well” or “fairly well” in the country. And in March of this year, 53% of people polled said they felt that way.
But then, this summer the presidential campaign heated up, and the country’s mood went south. In May, the percentage of people who felt things were going relatively well dropped six points to 47%, and last month that number came in at 48%.
Keep in mind, this more pessimistic turn occurred at a time of an improving economy, falling unemployment, tumbling gas prices, low inflation, rising housing prices and no terrorist attack that caused mass casualties.
What turned our blue skies gray? There are probably a number of reasons. Or maybe just one: a presidential campaign. More specifically a presidential campaign dominated by Donald Trump and others who are pounding out a message that things are just terrible.
Take, for example, what Trump said at a recent press conference on Thursday.
“Our country could be doing much better,” he told reporters and supporters in a typical riff. “We have deficits that are enormous. We have all bad trade agreements. We have an army that the head says is not prepared. We have a military that needs help, especially in these times. We have nuclear weapons that – you look at ‘60 Minutes’ – that don’t even work; if anybody saw that report. The phones don’t work. They’re 40-years-old. They have wires that don’t work.
“Nothing works. Our country doesn’t work. Everybody wins except us.”
“When so much of the attention is going to a candidate or candidates whose sole role is to say that the country is going to hell in a handbasket and only I can make it better, that can have an impact on the public mood,” says Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
To be sure, the country still faces major problems. Wages remain stagnant. ISIS continues its brutality in the Middle East and threatens attacks on the homeland. College and health care costs remain obscenely high.
But with the possible exception of violent crime – an important exception indeed – it is hard to argue that any of these problem have gotten significantly worse in the year since Americans began to express relative happiness in the country’s state of affairs. The images of undocumented children swarming across the border have faded. The Ebola scare has come and gone. No American has been beheaded by ISIS in nearly a year.
It is, of course, not surprising for candidates in the party out of the White House to paint a picture using the colors of impending doom.
“It is certainly the case that one of the effects of a presidential campaign is that one side will be raising criticism of the incumbent administration and the job it is doing,” says Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll. “So it is not unreasonable to think that when voters hear messages from their candidate we would expect them to become more negative about the state of the country.”
And as Republican candidates, especially Trump, keep up a constant drumbeat on how terrible things are, their loyalists’ moods followed suit. Indeed the biggest slump in the country’s mood occurred in Republicans. In March, 33% of Republicans told CNN that things were going “very” or “pretty well” in the country. By August that figure had dropped to 21%. Notably, the biggest falloff is seen in men, people making less than $50,000 a year and those who have not attended college – the core of Trump’s support.
Could it be that candidates like Trump are not just tapping into the voters’ anger, but also fomenting it?
“There is this subset that is unhappy culturally, economically, internationally,” says Christine Matthews, president of Bellwether Research, a Republican polling firm. “He is sort of exacerbating this alienation and anger and bringing it out.”
Democrats also have to take some blame for the country’s increasingly dour mood. Without an incumbent running for re-election, or a vice president running to replace his boss – at least not yet – there is no one giving a full-throated defense of the status quo. Hillary Clinton comes the closest, but she has been careful not to suggest things are just fine.
And the most energy on the Democratic side is being generated by Bernie Sanders, who doesn’t let a day go by without reminding everyone how the middle class is being screwed.
It does seem as though the nature of this presidential campaign is unabashedly pessimistic. It seems a long way both in time and attitude from Ronald Reagan campaigned in 1984 on the slogan, “It’s Morning in America.”
Or when George H.W. Bush adopted the theme song in 1988, “Don’t Worry; Be Happy.”
Or when Franklin Roosevelt’s campaign in 1932 – a time when the Great Depression had pushed the unemployment rate up the nearly 24% – ginned up crowds with the song, “Happy Days Are Here Again.”
“It’s the opposite of the Reagan approach,” says Matthews. “As much as these candidates like to compare themselves to Ronald Reagan, they have his yang, without his yin. Reagan’s yin was optimism. With him it always was, things are good. I can make them better.”