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Americans Expect Economic Improvement in a Deeply Divided Country

by Ronald Brownstein   |   December 7, 2016



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After the bruising 2016 campaign, Americans are broadly optimistic that Donald Trump’s election will invigorate the economy but fearful that it will further divide the nation along lines of class, race and party.

While a solid three-fifths of American adults indicated that as a result of the election they expect the U.S. economy to become more competitive internationally, and half expect their own opportunities to improve, majorities anticipate that relations between Americans of both different classes and different races will deteriorate, a new Allstate/Atlantic Media Heartland Monitor Poll has found.

In a measure of the skepticism Trump faces after winning the Electoral College while losing the popular vote, Americans divide almost exactly in half on whether he will succeed in uniting the country to move toward progress. Likewise, the share of adults who say he will govern in a way “that reflects bias against certain groups in society” is nearly as large as the percentage that says he “will try to govern as the president of all Americans,” the poll found.

On nearly all of these questions, public opinion flows through the same grooves as the election results themselves. Trump draws preponderant, even euphoric, levels of support from white men without a college education, and somewhat more measured but still substantial backing from white men with college degrees and white women without them. Those were the three key groups who powered his victory. But he faces much more critical assessments in the poll from the groups that most resisted him during last month’s voting: members of the Millennial generation, minorities, and college-educated white women.

One notable exception to that pattern may provide Trump an important opening: On several questions, particularly when asked whether the election’s outcome “will improve opportunity for you and your family,” African American and Hispanic men display considerably more optimism than women from those groups.

Overall, the poll underscores just how closely divided and uneasy the election has left the nation: the adults who said they were happy (18 percent) or satisfied (16 percent) about the outcome were outnumbered by the 40 percent combined that picked disappointed (18 percent), scared (15 percent) or angry (7 percent). The largest group, at 21 percent, described themselves simply as surprised. Notably, that anxiety did not reflect a polling sample tilted toward Clinton supporters: Clinton’s lead in the self-reported vote of those who responded to the poll was two percentage points, almost exactly her advantage in the most recent tallies of the popular vote.

In follow-up interviews, several Trump supporters who responded to the poll described him, in effect, as a risk worth taking: while several expressed some (or even many) doubts about him, they believed it worth trying someone from an unconventional background after more traditional politicians had failed to reverse the trends they decry in American life. “He might be a fresh start: You don’t know,” said Dennis Stanek, a firefighter in Houston who backed Trump. “All I know is the direction everything has gone in the last 10-plus years has been completely different from the way I’d like to see it. It’s not so much that I’m a Donald Trump fan, it’s just that I’m so much an anti-big government fan.”

On the other side, Louise DiLullo, a non-profit administrator now staying home with a small child outside Akron, Ohio, expressed the visceral disorientation and disbelief of many Clinton supporters about the unexpected result. “I have a six-month old daughter, and I held her on my lap and … nursed her while I made calls for Hillary Clinton,” she said. “I really wanted her to see that she could be anything, and that … she could approach something like that without question, that she could be a leader. And that the electorate voted for a man who has said such horrible things about women, and about other communities — Muslims, African Americans, Latinos, immigrants, you name it — that he said such horrible things and that he can be–he would be preferable to a woman? It has made me cry multiple times in the past month.”

The latest Heartland Monitor Poll is the 27th in a series examining how Americans are adapting to the changing economy. The new poll focuses on reactions to the 2016 election and the public’s priorities and expectations for the new administration and Congress. The Atlantic will be reporting results from the survey over the next week.

The most encouraging signal for Trump in the results is the broad expectation that his victory will improve the economy. The share of adults who expect the national economy to improve over the next 12 months spiked to 39 percent, a big jump from 22 percent in the most recent Heartland Poll last June. That’s the highest percentage expecting improvement over the next year since the poll conducted immediately after President Obama’s reelection in 2012 (though notably, the share now expecting improvement still falls below the 44 percent in that survey). Meanwhile, the share in the new poll that expect the economy only to stay the same over the coming year dipped to just over one-fifth–after hovering around two-fifths since early 2015 in Heartland surveys. Another 28 percent said they expected the economy to deteriorate–slightly more than the level in Heartland polls since early 2015.

Two other questions also reinforced a distinct note of economic optimism after Trump’s victory. Exactly 60 percent said they expected that because of the election “The American economy will be more … competitive in the world.” Only 30 percent said it would be less competitive; another 4 percent expected no change. Somewhat less emphatically, exactly 50 percent said because of the election “There will be more … opportunity for you and your family.” One-third said they expected less opportunity; one-in-eleven expected no change.

Anticipation of better times ahead was virtually unanimous among adults who said they voted for Trump: 94 percent believed the U.S. would grow more competitive and 87 percent expected an uptick in their personal prospects. But these positive expectations were shared relatively broadly. For instance, not only did 59 percent of both Baby Boomers and members of Generation X expect the nation’s international competitiveness to improve under Trump, so did 56 percent of Millennials. Also agreeing were narrow majorities of both minorities and college-educated white women, groups that were deeply skeptical of Trump throughout his candidacy. Overall three-in-10 Clinton voters said they expected Trump to improve the nation’s international competitiveness.

Opinions diverged more on whether his election would produce greater personal opportunity. But even on that front, one-third of minorities, 45 percent of Millennials and 47 percent of college-educated white women joined big majorities of college white men and non-college whites in expecting more opportunity. Just under one-in-five Clinton voters concurred. African Americans were the only major group in which a majority said they expected less opportunity under Trump, though a plurality of Hispanics also expected less.

Notwithstanding the relative breadth of this optimism, the stratospheric expectations among working-class whites–Trump’s core constituency from the primaries on–stand out. In Heartland Monitor Polls dating back to 2009, those non-college-educated whites have usually been the most pessimistic group on almost any economic question. But in the new poll, fully 73 percent of non-college-educated white men said they believe Trump will improve the nation’s international competitiveness and 70 percent say his election will improve their own economic opportunities; for white women without a college degree, the numbers are only a modestly more restrained 63 percent and 56 percent respectively. The share of non-college-educated white men who expect the economy to improve over the next year jumped from 20 percent in June to 50 percent now; the share of non-college-educated white women who expect improvement nearly doubled, to 46 percent. (By contrast, the share of minorities who expect improvement actually declined slightly since June.)

Joel Barfoot, a retired probation officer living near Montgomery, Alabama, is one of the Trump supporters confident about better times ahead. “The last five years working in the state of Alabama, I was taking home less pay … than the five years previous because of the cost of insurance and no raises or anything,” he said. “I see where Mr. Trump is talking about maybe putting a trillion dollars into the infrastructure to create jobs that way, but I also think there will be more and more American companies that probably come back … they won’t be outsourcing [anymore].”

Diana McKeen, a retired nurse in Belmont, Maine, also thinks Trump will reverse years of decline in her area. “Where I live, almost everything has gone—the shoe factories and shipping factories, all those things when I was in high school, all those things were shipped overseas,” she said. “Now we have Bank of America, things like that. But for the average person here, there really isn’t anything stable.” McKeen doesn’t think Trump will restore the same jobs, but thinks his promise to combat outsourcing will make a difference. “He’s saying things aren’t going to go overseas,” she said, “and so a lot of the products might be made more here in America so more jobs will come this way. “

Still, most Clinton voters were dubious that Trump could improve either the nation’s overall competitiveness or their own opportunities. DiLullo was one. Now staying at home with a child, she has a master’s degree in public administration and has lived in southern Ohio, where she “saw some of the worst poverty you can imagine.” She’s dubious that Trump can reverse that extended decline. “Donald Trump can promise all day long that he’s going to bring all these jobs back to America, but those coal mining jobs and the economies that it created … are never coming back,” she said. “I don’t think there’s any proof or any validity to the promises Donald Trump is making to bringing [those types of] jobs back to areas like that.”

On another major campaign emphasis for Trump, a somewhat more equivocal 48 percent said they expected as a result of his election the U.S. would be more safe from terrorism; 36 percent said it would become less safe, with the rest expecting no change or saying they didn’t know.

But the picture was very different on questions about how Americans expected Trump to affect the nation’s social and partisan divisions.

By nearly two-to-one, adults expected his election would make the political system more, not less, divided. Clinton supporters (at 86 percent) overwhelmingly expected more division, but so did a substantial minority (35 percent) of Trump voters. Just over seven-in-10 Millennials and minorities, and just under two-thirds of college-educated white women, expected greater partisan division.

Eric Nelson, an auto repair technician in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, who backed Trump, predicted that the president-elect’s conflicts with so many other Republicans during the campaign might actually prove liberating for him. “I believe because he didn’t really have the support of his own party, I think that he’s almost more like having an independent, and I would hope that maybe when issues are brought forward rather than fight it … one party against another, it might be looked at more [as] the issue rather than … which party is pressing it, you know,” Nelson said. “He might listen more to the content rather than who’s delivering it after it’s all said and done.”

By virtually identical margins, narrow majorities expected other important fissures to widen under Trump. By 51 percent to 41 percent, American adults expected relations “between different social classes” to deteriorate. By 52 percent to 39 percent, adults expected deterioration in relations “between different racial and ethnic groups.” Again, Clinton voters were the most pessimistic (with over 80 percent expecting a heightening of tensions on each front) but a measurable number of Trump voters (roughly one-fifth in each case) also anticipated more turbulence. On both questions, whites split about evenly on whether they expect more division, while about two-thirds of non-whites thought conditions would worsen. Women were also more likely than men to expect growing division.

Those polled split closely on whether Trump would be more part of the solution or the problem. While a narrow plurality of 49 percent agreed the “president-elect will lead the nation to come back together,” a nearly equal 46 percent said that “the divisiveness highlighted during the campaign will continue to pull us apart and hinder progress.” Attitudes on this question almost completely followed the 2016 result: While 91 percent of Trump voters thought he would unify the nation, fully 83 percent of Clinton voters disagreed.

Assessments of Trump’s personal inclinations produced the same precarious divide—and underscored the apprehension he faces as he approaches the White House. Only a narrow 51 percent majority agreed, “Trump will try to govern as the president of all Americans,” while 45 percent expected he “will govern in a way that reflects bias against certain groups in society.”

About three-fifths of both college-educated white men and non-college-educated white women, and an overwhelming 70 percent of non-college-educated white men, believed Trump would be a president for all Americans. But about three-fifths of both Millennials and non-white adults (including nearly two-thirds of African Americans) said they thought he would reflect bias; college-educated white women were the most conflicted, dividing almost exactly in half. Overall, the gender gap on this question was substantial: while 57 percent of men thought Trump would govern for all Americans, just 46 percent of women agreed. Among Hispanics, men were particularly more likely than women to believe Trump would try to serve all Americans as president.

William Foley, a college engineering professor in Clifton Park, New York, who voted for Clinton, said he believed an appeal to racial bias was central to Trump’s success as a candidate—and that he expected similar notes from him as president.

“I think the appeal to race and ‘not-like-me’ was a major factor in this election,” he said. “You’re ‘not like me’ because of religion. You’re ‘not like me’ because of your country of origin. You’re ‘not like me’ because of your skin color.” Once Trump is president, Foley continued, “I believe that it’s going to be reflected upon immigration pools, regardless of origin of the person, be it South American, Middle Eastern, Asian, whatever. Because of some of the comments [from him] was nationalism in a multicultural country, which is hard to define.”

The poll also made clear that after the grueling race most Americans see plenty of scars that need healing. At least 70 percent of adults identified five separate sources of conflict that emerged in 2016 as either a “serious” or “somewhat” of a problem for the nation, including strained relations between: police and African American communities; the rich versus the poor; business and political elites versus average Americans; native-born citizens and immigrants; and whites and non-whites. Clinton voters were more likely than Trump supporters to identify each of these as problems, but at least 60 percent of the winner’s voters agreed in each case. (Clinton voters were most likely to identify as problems relations between police and African American communities and the rich against the poor; for Trump voters, the top finishers were elites against average Americans, and black-police relations.) At least 37 percent of all adults identified each of those five divides as a “serious” problem (with police/African American relations topping the list.)

How Americans Assess Demographic Divides

Majorities also perceived relations between urban and rural Americans, and white- vs. blue-collar workers as either a “serious” or “somewhat” of a problem. Just under half saw comparable degrees of risk in conflicts between men and women, and older and younger Americans.

From all of these different angles, the poll converges on the same message. While many Americans, particularly Trump’s supporters, believe his victory will move the economy forward, roughly half the nation fears that his ascent will set the country back by deepening the cracks that his march to the White House so starkly revealed.


—Atlantic Assistant Editor Leah Askarinam contributed.

The latest Allstate/Atlantic Media Heartland Monitor Poll is the 27th in a series examining how Americans are experiencing the changing economy. This poll examines the public’s to-do list for Washington in the coming year, and which political leaders Americans trust most to respond to the nation’s most pressing problems. It surveyed 1,000 adults by landline and cell phones from November 16 to November 21, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. The survey was supervised by Ed Reilly, Megan McNally and William Cullo of FTI Consulting’s strategic communications practice.

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