Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN and The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.
Contrary to the famous adage from Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, it’s not the economy, stupid.
It’s happiness and overall well-being.
And even though President Donald Trump is running for re-election during an economic boom (never mind the trillion-dollar deficit fueling it) Democrats are wrong to fear that a strong economy could doom their prospects. That’s because it turns out that voters actually care about other things besides money.
Sure, money matters a lot. But a growing body of research suggests that other things may count more. In particular, it appears that we care greatly about our well-being, which includes income and retirement accounts but also a wide variety of other factors.
One of the features of the Trump era is exhaustion with the acrimony that has engulfed America. How many times have we heard people plead that they need a break – from the shocking news, from the unceasing attacks, from the bitterness that has ended friendships, sparked social media ruthlessness and toxicity, and generally produced a permanent state of medium-grade national anxiety. That is true among Democrats, but many independents and Republicans share the distress.
It all adds up to a national miasma that drains many people’s daily sense of well-being no matter how much the economy grows. And that, the research – and common sense – suggests, could spell the president’s downfall.
Multiple studies point to a similar conclusion. The economist Federica Liberini and her colleagues found that subjective well-being can have an impact almost 10 times larger than family income on support for a political incumbent.
Separately, George Ward at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found similar results. Looking at polling and election results in 15 European countries over 40 years, he noted that economic growth was an important factor. But a measure of “life satisfaction” had a greater impact on voting behavior. Life satisfaction, he concluded, was “twice as important in explaining how incumbents did as the unemployment rate and about 30 percent more important than GDP growth.”
That jibes with Gallup findings after the 2016 US election. Gallup compared shifts in voting from the 2012 election, from Democrat to Republican and vice versa. It found that in counties that saw the biggest jump favoring Republicans, people had lower satisfaction with their lives. Those that shifted to Democrats had higher life satisfaction and optimism. It wasn’t just about money and jobs.
Trump has an instinctive feel for the phenomenon. His persistent vilification of America under Obama, describing the country as an endangered nation rife with carnage and devastation, put his finger in a wound. Where there was no wound, he managed to rub emotions raw. His endless tirades declaring America’s downfall added to the pessimism that helped defeat the Democrats.
Remember Ronald Reagan’s famous question to voters during a 1980 debate with incumbent Jimmy Carter? Reagan asked Americans, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Perhaps he was only referring to the economy. But America was not a particularly happy place at the time. Carter came to be associated with a national “malaise.” Reagan encouraged voters to gaze optimistically toward a mythical shining city on a hill.
Four years later, Reagan was re-elected in a spectacular landslide, even though GDP growth under Reagan was only slightly higher than under Carter. That vote reflected more an amorphous sense of optimism under Reagan.
When Americans turn their attention more fully to the 2020 election, voters will be interested in candidate proposals about health insurance, student debt, and the like. But the way to a Democratic victory is more likely one that also promises an end to the awful feeling that now pervades much of the country. That sense of constant war against each other. That floating dread about how far this will go.
Americans have endured more than two years of ugly stories from Washington; stories of corruption, of conflicts of interest, of payments to adult-film stars, of secret meetings with Russians, of Cabinet members that resign or are fired amid ugly scandals, of collapsing global approval for America’s leadership, of shocking tweets day after day after day after day.
Trump’s approval rating largely conceals the level of disappointment, weariness and exasperation many Americans feel.
Research shows that Americans are less happy than when Trump took office, even if the stock market is at record highs. The UN World Happiness Report ranked the United States at No. 15 for 2012 to 2014. It dropped to 19 for 2016-2018, and its overall score fell, so it wasn’t just that others did better. Americans simply are less happy than they used to be.
And no, it’s not only about the economy.
To win, Democrats must remind voters of the true promise of America, a country of people who have come together and built a great nation founded on lofty ideals that have inspired the world. They have to persuade voters they will restore a sense of optimism and bring an end to the exhausting, embarrassing era of Trump mayhem.