Millions of working-class Americans voted for a man who promised them the world—new factories, more shifts at mines, less foreign competition. But many of the people who support Donald Trump’s brand of economic populism don’t seem particularly convinced it will actually make things better.
Nearly half of Trump’s voters think life in their local communities will get better in the years to come, according to a post-election PRRI/The Atlantic poll. Another five percent think things might get worse. Granted, conditions look even more grim to Hillary Clinton’s supporters, more than half of whom report feeling worried or angry about the outcome of the election. But the fact that Trump’s base reports such pessimism despite victory shows how little some of them expect to benefit from a Republican presidency, as unconventional as this one may be.
“They’re fairly cynical,” said Robert P. Jones, PRRI’s CEO. “Yes, they may be hopeful, but if you ask them what they really expect, they're pretty fatalistic about it, even though they’re voting for all kinds of change.”
Take it from Bernice McCullough, 80, a retiree from Alliance, Ohio. She’s a registered Democrat, and she normally votes within the party. This year, Trump caught her eye—Barack Obama didn’t live up to her expectations, McCullough said, and she was in no mood for Clinton. So she cast her ballot for the Republican. But she did it with very few expectations.
“I doubt very much that he’s going to much of anything,” McCullough said. “I just wanted to see if there could be a change … I didn’t want the same thing that we’ve had for eight years. And I think that’s what was going to happen.”
Her patience is short. “He’s got four years,” she said. “He’d better do something in four years.”
White voters without a college degree, a group that makes up the core of Trump’s support, has been a bit pessimistic about the future for some time. A Pew Research report published this summer found that more than two-thirds of Trump supporters predicted the next generation would be worse off than today. These new results, showing nearly half of Trump voters feeling more optimistic about life getting better in their communities, would seem to indicate an improving mood.
But it falls short of the confidence you’d might expect to see if Trump’s supporters actually believed all his campaign promises. Many agreed with a few things, including his pitch that a Trump presidency was the Republican’s final chance, possibly forever, to win the White House and secure the future of the country. About two-thirds of his voters agreed that 2016 was America’s last opportunity to arrest an irrevocable decline.
And they certainly were happy when he won, with half saying they felt excited, and nearly four in 10 feeling satisfied. But their confidence in the future, while elevated, certainly didn’t skyrocket.
That may be because they’re busy thinking about the present. Mark Blair, a truck driver from Iowa, said he cared most about what the next president will do to reduce regulation, and how they’ll help entrepreneurs like himself. He liked the way Trump handled himself, and his dislike of Clinton sealed the deal. Concern about the future of his local community didn’t enter the picture. “I don’t know what he can do in my area,” he said. “I was more concerned about my business.”
The election also unveiled a telling split in what Americans think about the United States electoral system. On the whole, most Trump supporters said biased media coverage was the campaign’s biggest problem—unsurprising, given their candidate’s constant complaints about coverage. Clinton voters, on the other hand, were more likely to be concerned about the influence of money in politics, or low voter participation. Neither side cared much about voter fraud: Only 6 percent of Republicans and 5 percent of Democrats said it was a problem.
Democrats, by the way, have always been a bit sunnier about the future. In the Pew survey cited earlier, around two-thirds of Democrats thought things would get better in America, or at least stay the same. Those figures didn’t shift all that much in the PRRI survey, with 71 percent saying the quality of life in their local communities would improve, or at least stay the same.
Trump pitched himself as an economic repairman, renegotiating trade deals and punishing American companies who move jobs offshore. His supporters certainly saw plenty of broken things in their communities: Almost half say illegal drugs are a major problem in their towns, and just over two-thirds say society has become “too soft and feminine.” But his appeal might not be in his ability to actually fix these problems.
Trump’s supporters don’t necessarily expect the world to get better. However, they are a lot happier about the United States than they were on November 7. Change was enough, it appears—at least for now.