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America (You’re Freaking Me Out)

Pollster in cornfield
Randy Eccles/Adobe Firefly

COMMENTARY

It’s an election year, and I am a political scientist. That means I have friends and colleagues asking me to read the tea leaves about the upcoming election. “What’s the election going to be about? What’s driving voter behavior? What’s going to happen?!” I am asked. And let me tell you, trying to predict this year's political circus is like trying to predict the next viral TikTok trend – unpredictable and mildly terrifying. The reason being is that while we usually have some good measures that help us understand how U.S. presidential elections are likely to turn out, those measures are not acting or looking like they previously did. So, let’s go briefly (I promise!) through some of those measures.

Economic Measures

Democratic strategist James Carville once declared “it’s the economy, stupid” and when talking about U.S. presidential elections, the claim used to hold a lot of water. There’s something called “economic voting theory” that basically argues that since the economy tends to influence how well-off people’s lives are, voters will reward politicians and their parties that are in office during good economic times and punish those who are in office during bad economic times. There is strong evidence of this in the US, and other places in the world. Further, the positive impact of economic factors previously held across various measures such as gas prices, the economic “misery index”, and economic confidence. Particularly, economic performance in the second quarter (April-July) prior to the election were thought to matter the most.

The disconnect between economic performance and electoral success appears to have begun in 2011( maybe even 2005), solidified in 2016, and seems strong heading in 2024. Currently, the stock market is doing remarkably well, unemployment is shockingly low, inflation is coming down, and wage growth is up. However, these positive economic indicators are not translating into incredible approval numbers for President Biden, with his approval rating stuck in the basement, like that box of Christmas decorations I forgot to grab this past holiday season. This breaks from traditional thinking, but it might be too early for the economy to matter to voters yet. Another explanation might be that we need to change our measures of economic success to capture how voters understand it at a personal level, particularly focusing on “micro” or household level indicators given a lot of households are struggling in this strong economy. Or maybe it’s just partisanship, like a lot of other things.

Approval Ratings

Considering I just mentioned approval ratings, are they helpful here? Approval ratings of politicians, particularly of U.S. presidents and their opponents, have previously been a useful predictor of electoral success. However, both parties nominated historically disliked candidates for president in 2016, and appear set to do it again in 2024. In fact, approval ratings are seen as potentially useless these days by some who look at approval ratings due to “approval collapse.” Basically, since voters seemingly disapprove of everyone, approval and disapproval really tell us nothing about how they’re going to vote. Just because voters may dislike or disapprove of a politician, that doesn’t mean they won’t vote for them. What may matter more is not whether voters disapprove of a candidate in a vacuum, but courtesy of negative partisanship, how much more they disapprove of their opponent (s). In fact, there is increased attention on voters who disapprove of both major candidates, as they’re expected to ultimately decide which of those two they dislike more.

Voter Dissatisfaction

What about other measures, like satisfaction with life or other things? Those have to matter, right?! I’m so glad you asked! Measures of voter satisfaction with how things are going in America were previously useful as a signal of what an election outcome may be, at least in the Electoral College (which is what really matters at the national level). However, lately it seems like Americans are more dissatisfied across the board than my kids when I tell them we’re out of ice cream. Some examples at the national level that suggest this dissatisfaction might be a large problem are the eye popping lows of confidence and trust in institutions, occupations, the fairness of the American economic system, the current structure of the US government, the ability of America to solve problems, the American way of life, and the future of America. In some of these measures of satisfaction, America is far below the world average.

Some analysis suggests that there is less of a clear relationship between measures of dissatisfaction and who deserves blame or credit, which makes such measures less than helpful for voters. Basically, a lot of folks are angry, but they all can’t agree on who to be angry at. This discussion also relates to the previous discussion on approval as the claim is “approval collapse” is occurring due to voter alienation from society more largely, something Sociologist Eric Klinenberg calls “structural isolation.” Essentially, part of the problem of trying to use these measures is that such a wide swath of Americans feel disconnected and dissatisfied with American society across the board including with their employers, their communities, and, importantly for this point, their government.

All this impacts American optimism, which may be impacting our relationship to our political system and our politics, making it harder to rely on these measures to help understand voter decision making. Further, dissatisfaction usually hurts the incumbent office holder or party since voters base their evaluations off their life under the incumbent, but in 2024 we’ve got two candidates who have held the presidency going head to head, something that rarely happens. This means voters have experience of their lives under both. It’s not clear how this is going to impact the relationship between widespread satisfaction and voting.

Wrapping Up

Collectively then, previously helpful measures of economic attitudes, candidate approval, and satisfaction with a variety of measures of American life seem to be less helpful now than they were in the past to explain American voting behavior. We’re increasingly unsure how to measure things given conflicting realities and lots of folks seem angry, less optimistic, and full of dissatisfaction with our politicians, political system, and each other. Put another way (and the original title of this post) America, the “vibes” are off. Hey, maybe I should be more optimistic though, after all in a world full of pernicious partisanship and the “calcification” of our politics that’s produced, there are a few things Americans can agree on after all! We’re mad as heck and not really sure what we’re going to do about it.

In all seriousness, when you combine these measures with measures ofpotentially increased American comfort with political violence, this all gives me, an optimistic, data driven, person unease at the moment. I’m not sure what’s going to happen in November or even what measures might be useful to try to understand it. I don’t know yet what is going to matter (regardless of how many times people ask me, though check back in late July…maybe). Plus, the chance of political violence seems to be higher than zero. Let’s add in the fact that we are roughly nine months out from the election and a lot of pieces on the board could change between now and then. To be honest, an unpredictable, potentially violent, electoral season is something that keeps me up at night. Basically, in the wise words of Scranton, Pennsylvania’s finest (in my humble opinion) blue-collar rock and rollers “The Menzingers”, America I love you, but you’re freaking me out.

Thanks for reading.

AJ Simmons is the Research Director of the Center for State Policy and Leadership at UIS. He holds a PhD from the School of Politics and Global Studies at Arizona State University. He likes bowling and discussing politics with people he disagrees with.