Pew Research Center

Electorate Sour on Candidates, Primary Process

American voters are definitely interested in the 2016 presidential election, but many feel disaffected with the front-running candidates, the primary process and the electorate’s own “political wisdom.” 

American voters are definitely interested in the 2016 presidential election, but many feel disaffected with the front-running candidates, the primary process and the electorate’s own “political wisdom.” 

Voter turnout this year rivals the record-setting 2008 presidential election, but it has produced two candidates with historically high negative ratings and a sour taste about the primary process.

When Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders complain that the primary process is rigged, a majority of voters apparently agree with them. According to the Pew Research Center, only 35 percent of registered voters think the primary process produces the best qualified nominees. For Democrats, it’s a meager 30 percent.

Trump supporters are the most glowing in appreciation of the nominating process at 60 percent. Clinton’s backers have more positive views than Sanders’ supporters by a 37 percent to 25 percent margin.

But discontentment with the process and the front-running candidates hasn’t doused interest. Pew says 89 percent of Republicans and 82 percent of Democrats have given the 2016 election a “great deal of thought.” Those percentages exceed voter interest in the 2008 open presidential race.

Another interesting finding is that a majority of voters are frustrated, not angry, about government. Pew found 59 percent of voters express frustration, while only 22 percent admit to being angry. Seventeen percent claim to be basically content. 

Of those who are angry, 25 percent are fed up with politicians for failing to keep their promises or acting in a self-serving way, 18 percent are disgusted with political gridlock and 15 percent think politicians are out of touch and not working on their behalf. Four percent are angry because of President Obama, 3 percent because of Wall Street and big business influence and 3 percent because of taxes.

As might be expected, Republicans are more likely to be angry with a Democrat in the White House. Democrats were angrier during the George W. Bush White House years.

A discouraging perspective that emerges from the research is a pervasive view that life in America today is worse than it was 50 years ago and that it will be even worse for the net generation of Americans. Research indicates 46 percent of all voters – and 54 percent of white voters – think things in America are worse for “people like them.” That contrasts with only 17 percent of African-American and 37 percent of Hispanic voters who share the same view. There is more agreement across racial lines that things will be worse for the next generation.

It is reassuring that 68 percent of registered voters believe personal insults are “never fair game” in politics. Democrats hold that view more strongly than Republicans, but even Trump supporters agree by a 51 percent to 47 percent margin. Clinton and Sanders supporters are equal in their distaste for personal insults.

Voters by a 75 percent majority believe news outlets have given Trump too much coverage. That is less true, as you might imagine, with Trump supporters, who by a 55 percent majority think his coverage is “about right.” Supporters of Trump’s GOP rivals felt their candidates drew too little earned media coverage. Ohio Governor John Kasich’s backers were the most displeased, with 82 percent saying their candidate got less coverage than he deserved. Overall, 53 percent of GOP voters agreed. Even 42 percent of Trump supporters thought Kasich was shorted.

The study also shows Americans’ confidence in the “political wisdom” of the electorate sharply eroding through the 21st century. As recently as 1997, 69 percent of Democrats and 59 percent of Republicans expressed confidence in the political wisdom of the American public. Now only 35 percent of Republicans and 32 percent of Democrats have a great deal or good deal of confidence in the public’s political wisdom.

Both Parties Lack Middle-Class Confidence

Political pundits have spun a lot of spitballs to explain voter anger in this year’s presidential election. The Pew Research Center may have the answer in data that shows voters question both political parties' commitment to rescue America’s struggling middle class.

Rejection of “status quo” solutions and “establishment” economics by large blocs of voters in the Republican and Democratic parties have been attributed to concerns about job security, inability to put aside money for retirement and rising college student debt.

Pew Research findings suggest another reason – "62 percent of Americans say the federal government does not do enough for middle-class people.” That view, Pew says, has persisted since 2011, which may account for the simmering resentment and political disenchantment evident on the campaign trail.

Respondents to the Pew poll conducted in early December say Republicans tilt more toward the rich and Democrats care for the poor, but they don’t see much difference in Republican and Democratic policies toward the middle class.

That lukewarm assessment of both parties parallels the decline over the last four decades of middle-income Americans as a percentage of the population along with a shift of aggregate household income to upper-income families.

Providing more help to the middle class isn’t just a middle-class concern. It is a view shared by older people, children and poor people. The only cohort that disagrees, according to the poll, are wealthy people who believe the middle class gets too much help.

Seventy-seven percent of Democrats and 61 percent of non-aligned voters believe wealthy people get too much help from the federal government, as do 44 percent of Republicans.

As the Democratic and GOP presidential races tighten heading into New Hampshire next week, it is worth noting that nominees who don’t win on the first ballot of their party convention are more likely to lose the general election.

As the Democratic and GOP presidential races tighten heading into New Hampshire next week, it is worth noting that nominees who don’t win on the first ballot of their party convention are more likely to lose the general election.

Self-assessments within economic classes have generally improved as the United States has climbed out of economic recession. People who identify as part of the middle class and say they are in financially good shape has ticked up 12 percent over a similar financial self-assessment in 2011.

Despite improving economic conditions, 48 percent of the middle class describes themselves as “staying even” and 43 percent say they are “falling behind.” Lower-income Americans have a gloomier outlook, with 66 percent feeling they are “falling behind.”

As presidential campaigns tighten as they head into next week’s New Hampshire primary, Pew Research offers another cheery note – nominees who fail to win on the first ballot in their party conventions are more likely to lose the general election. Pew reached that conclusion by looking at presidential elections between 1868 and 1984.