Politics The role (un)happiness plays in how people vote
Majority plan to vote before Election Day: AP-NORC poll
Fifty-four percent of voters say they will vote before polls open on Election Day. In 2016, roughly 42% of voters did so .Trump for months has denigrated mail voting, and Democrats have expressed concern about postal delays that could keep such ballots from being counted. The poll finds ebbing enthusiasm for mail voting: Only 28% of Americans say they would favor their state holding elections exclusively by mail, down from the 40% who said so in April as the coronavirus pandemic was first spreading in the U.S. and before Trump launched his anti-mail campaign.
It's been nearly 30 years since James Carville, a strategist for Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential bid, scrawled the words "The economy, stupid" on a whiteboard at the campaign's headquarters. Since then, this mantra has shaped American conventional wisdom about how voters select their candidates on Election Day.
But to what extent can these pocketbook issues explain the election of Donald Trump in 2016?
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Voter turnout in the U.S. is typically much lower than you might expect, lagging behind that of other developed democratic countries around the world. A 2018 Pew Research Center study looked at the percentage of the voting-age population who participated in the most recent national election in 32 countries. The U.S. came in at No. 26, with only 56% of voting-age Americans casting ballots in the 2016 election. (The percentage of theA 2018 Pew Research Center study looked at the percentage of the voting-age population who participated in the most recent national election in 32 countries. The U.S. came in at No. 26, with only 56% of voting-age Americans casting ballots in the 2016 election.
Theories abound for why Trump won the White House. In line with conventional wisdom, many have pointed towards economic factors such as stagnant wages among middle-class Americans, as well as job losses arising from automation, international trade, and the decline in domestic manufacturing. Others have focused on issues of racial and religious identity, status threat, cultural backlash, and a growing divide in moral values.
Many of these narratives share a common theme: They describe a pretty unhappy population. Despite large increases in the country's GDP over the past few decades,. According to data that goes all the way back to the 1970s, . Might this slow-burning malaise in American happiness help explain Trump's victory?
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My colleagues, and and I, an interdisciplinary group of social and behavioral scientists who study "subjective wellbeing"-the technical term for people's happiness - suspected this may be the case. We analyzed over two million responses to collected during the years preceding the 2016 election. The survey provides a rich account of people's wellbeing across the country, including how satisfied they are with their lives overall, how optimistic they are about their happiness in the future, how much purpose they feel they have in their lives, as well as the extent to which they experience positive and negative emotions on a day-to-day basis, such as enjoyment, happiness, stress, worry, and fear. We then aggregated this information to the county level in order to explore the link between voter wellbeing and the 2016 electoral outcome. Our findings are published in the .
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We found that the overall happiness or unhappiness of a county's population was an abnormally strong predictor of how it voted in 2016 compared with a typical election. Remarkably, the level of happiness explained even more of the outcome than the usual suspects, such as a county's income, employment rate, demographics, and religious and racial composition.
From this analysis we don't necessarily know all the reasons why many members of the electorate were unhappy. Clearly something has gone very wrong with American happiness over the past few decades - a topic which should surely merit more attention in the social and behavioral sciences. What we do know is that Donald Trump seems to have been particularly adept in mobilizing this unhappiness at the ballot box.
While many countries around the world have begun to routinely measure well-being and to use the data to inform policymaking decisions, the U.S. has lagged behind and has tended to eschew such measures.
Our analysis suggests that governments rarely manage to stay in office when the population is unhappy, and politicians hoping to get re-elected ignore happiness data at their peril.
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If the vote is close, Donald Trump could easily throw the election into chaos and subvert the result. Who will stop him?There is a cohort of close observers of our presidential elections, scholars and lawyers and political strategists, who find themselves in the uneasy position of intelligence analysts in the months before 9/11. As November 3 approaches, their screens are blinking red, alight with warnings that the political system does not know how to absorb. They see the obvious signs that we all see, but they also know subtle things that most of us do not. Something dangerous has hove into view, and the nation is lurching into its path.
Not only is happiness strongly associated with incumbent electoral success, levels of (un)happiness were also correlated with higher vote shares for anti-establishment, or "populist," candidates. Unhappier counties were more likely to vote for Donald Trump in the Republican primaries and for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic ones, for example. This suggests not only that unhappy people typically vote against the sitting government, but also that anti-system candidates seem to be particularly adept at converting unhappiness into votes.
Of course, the question of the hour is: What does this mean for the upcoming presidential election between Donald Trump and Joe Biden?
Predicting the future is notoriously difficult, if not downright foolhardy. But it is worth noting that amidst a global pandemic, economic crises, and social unrest, increases in worry and stress have fueled, according to Gallup's latest data.
The fact that more Americans classify themselves as unhappy should bode well for Biden as a challenger. After all, asuggests that . But one note of caution is that this is not a typical election year. And Donald Trump is far from a typical incumbent candidate. Even after nearly four years in office, he continues to present himself as an outsider fighting the establishment.
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Regardless of the outcome, the data suggest that Carville might need to revisit his old catchphrase. To win an election the message is clear: "It's happiness, stupid."
, lead author of the study mentioned above, is a behavioral scientist at the MIT Sloan School of Management.
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