Almost 40 years ago, Ronald Reagan was on the stage of a tight presidential election and told Americans that when they go to the voting booth they should ask themselves a simple question: “Are you better than four years ago? ? “
Since then, that phrase has not only been part of the American political lexicon, but an abbreviation that pollsters use to judge the mood of the country.
If voters feel that they are generally better off, the chances are good that the prospect of the incumbent’s re-election in general is better too.
That’s not true this year.
In swing states and at the national level, polls have shown that a majority or near majority say they are better off than they were four years ago, but they see the nation on the wrong track and want a new president.
“It is clear that Biden’s fate this year is not implicated in that question,” said David Paleologos, director of the Political Research Center at Suffolk University, who recently conducted surveys at the Boston Globe in Maine and New Hampshire. “It’s almost like people are saying their own house is fine, but outside there’s this dark cloud called COVID and the president’s inability to deal with it.”
The two Suffolk / Globe surveys for the two states of New England showed similar results. In New Hampshire, 53 percent of likely voters said they were better off than they were four years ago, compared with 29 percent who are worse off and 16 percent who say there is no difference. In Maine, 47 percent said they were better off than four years ago, 36 percent said they were worse off, and 15 percent said they are the same.
Trump followed Biden in both states.
This reflects the nationwide vote. A national poll published Tuesday by the New York Times / Siena College found that 49 percent said they were better off than they were four years ago, 32 percent said they weren’t, and 16 percent said they were about the same.
There are of course people who are better off who credit Trump and give him their vote. Kim Lewis-Lash, a massage therapist from Waldoboro, Maine, is also among those who say she is better than she was four years ago. The 56-year-old Republican said that her 401k has definitely improved during this time (although she has suffered a blow recently) and that life in her community in general has improved.
Sure, she’s not a huge fan of Trump’s antics or his tweets, but she sees Trump as “the only one who can bring us back out of this mess”.
Still, the fact that America is in “chaos” right now is about as bipartisan as the idea that Americans are better off than they were four years ago. Time and again, around two-thirds of voters say the nation is currently on the wrong track.
Given that COVID-19 appears to be on the upswing in most states, this should come as no surprise. Additionally, the “four years ago” question is largely viewed as a paperback question that doesn’t address COVID, foreign policy, and a racist awakening that the president was not seen as a leader.
There is also just one general sentiment, some voters say, that it is a problem. In the Globe / Suffolk poll in New Hampshire, 19 percent of likely voters said the next president’s most pressing problem is the need to bring the country together. This was more than eight of the nine other options offered to respondents.
Think Maureen Adams, a 65-year-old retiree who just moved into a new adult community in Hollis, New Hampshire. She said her family’s economic situation has been better since Trump entered the White House. “But what does that even mean if it was you? Going to the grocery store for months and carefully checking whether other people are wearing masks and should be avoided.
“Look, some of my neighbors may have a second home in Florida, but they can’t go there this winter,” added Adams.
Adams, a Republican, voted for Trump in 2016. Four years later, and when she says she is better, this time Adams will vote for Biden.
James Pindell can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell.