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The role (un)happiness plays in how people vote

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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?

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, happiness measures have fared more poorly. According to data that goes all the way back to the 1970s, happiness has actually fallen for many. Might this slow-burning malaise in American happiness help explain Trump’s victory?

My colleagues Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, Lyle Ungar, and Johannes Eichstaedt 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 Gallup’s U.S. Daily Poll 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 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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.

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 a record drop in U.S. life satisfaction, 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, a growing body of research suggests that unhappy populations rarely vote to re-elect an incumbent. 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.

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.”

George Ward, lead author of the study mentioned above, is a behavioral scientist at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

Tags 2020 election 2020 presidential polls Bernie Sanders Bill Clinton Donald Trump happiness James Carville Joe Biden quality of life Well-being

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