Angry voters dominate the presidential primaries

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of blog posts that will feature analysis of data released as part of the Brookings Democracy Dashboard. 

As we begin this presidential election year the American voters are mad. How mad? Well, this week Brookings introduced the Democracy Dashboard; a collection of data assembled and designed to help the scholar and/or the interested reader figure out what’s happening to American democracy. And a quick look shows that voters are very mad and that the anger has been building for awhile.

Let’s start with the big question; one that’s been asked for over half a century now—do you trust the government to do what’s right. In 2008 only 24 percent of the public expressed trust in government. Four years later that number dropped to 19 percent and stayed there. Of course that drop is not as precipitous as the drop in trust in the legislative branch. Forty seven percent of the public had trust in the legislative branch in 2008 and that dropped 19 points to 28 percent in 2014.

All is not bleak for the government, however. Most people trust their local government and those numbers have remained fairly steady over the past eight years, and state government does pretty well on the trust barometer too. It’s the national government that has voters especially riled up.

But where we really see the anger is on a question that asks people’s perception of the way things are going in the United States. In 2008 fully 84 percent of the public said they were dissatisfied. And no wonder—we were in the midst of a long and questionable war on the brink of a major recession. But to really understand today’s angry voters, have a look at the response in 2014. Although there’s a bit of improvement, in the face of better economic numbers and withdrawal from Iraq, we still have fully 75 percent of the public expressing dissatisfaction with the way things are going. Unfavorable views of the Democratic Party have increased as have unfavorable views of the Republican Party. And, fifty-eight percent of the public thinks the two parties are doing such a bad job that a third party is needed.

That’s an angry electorate—one that is personified these days by Donald Trump but that emerged for the first time in the 2010 elections when the Tea Party surprised everyone, including the Republican Party establishment, with their strength. There is an inchoate feel to this anger when it comes to traditional public policy issues. Bernie Sanders’ voters are mad at Wall Street, but so are some of Trump’s voters. Everyone’s mad about the mess in the Middle East, but some would carpet bomb large swaths of territory while others would rely on Arab “coalitions,” and others would ignore them. As my colleague E.J. Dionne writes in his new book “Why the Right Went Wrong,” Americans today have become so divided that they “were now divided even in their alienation.”

But what does unite the angry voters is the profound sense that something is very, very wrong with today’s leaders. The anger at them goes a long way towards explaining how and why experience has become a dirty word in this campaign—just ask Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush. Apparently some voters have concluded that only by breaking the mold in a big way—by electing a billionaire with no government experience or a Socialist—can America be saved.