As both a presidential candidate and president, Donald Trump has been said to possess a special connection to “ordinary Americans” or “average Americans” while his “elitist” opponents are said to seem down on them.
Of course, Trump’s fame and wealth make him the maximum amount an elite as, say, the party’s previous presidential nominee, Mitt Romney. But Romney was widely derided as an out-of-touch plutocrat, a characterization that squared with decades of polling on voter beliefs about the category interests of GOP politicians. Trump, against this , was called “the people’s billionaire” and credited for his populist appeal, which appeared to suggest that he could finally break away from his party’s association with affluence.
But three years into his presidency, most Americans don't perceive Trump as particularly concerned about the center class, the poor or people like them. they are doing see him as concerned about the rich , however. In fact, Trump is perceived no differently from how Romney was at the top of the 2012 presidential campaign. Instead, it's Trump’s likely Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, who is more widely perceived as sympathetic to the center class. A president who once seemed able to remake the GOP brand has been recast in its image — which could have consequences for his reelection.
One way to point out how voters perceive the interests of politicians is to ask Americans how well different leaders are described by the phrases “cares about the rich ,” “cares about the center class,” “cares about the poor” and “cares about people like me.” When respondents were asked these questions on Romney during a YouGov survey conducted right before polling day in 2012, 88 percent said that “cares about the wealthy” described Romney somewhat well or alright . Only 47 percent said that “cares about the center class” described Romney well and still fewer said that Romney cared about the poor (41 percent) or “people like me” (44 percent). (That survey was conducted using an opt-in online survey panel and weighted to match characteristics of the U.S. population.)
By contrast, 56 percent of usa citizens thought that President Barack Obama cared about the rich . Compared to Romney, more said that Obama cared about the center class (57 percent), the poor (61 percent) and “people like me” (54 percent).
In 2016, it looked as if Trump could be different from Romney. When the 2016 American National Election Survey — conducted using probability samples of individuals who either took the survey online or were interviewed face-to-face — asked respondents about what proportion the candidates cared about people like them, Trump lagged behind Hillary Clinton by but Romney lagged behind Obama in 2012.
But as of today, Trump doesn't look much different from the way Romney did. during a March 2020 Democracy Fund-UCLA Nationscape survey, the overwhelming majority of usa citizens (83 percent) said that Trump cares about the rich — more than said he cares about the center class (45 percent), the poor (38 percent), and “people like me” (40 percent). Indeed, 74 percent of independents and even 23 percent of Republicans said that Trump didn't care about “people like me.” If anything, Americans may even see Trump as less in-tuned with ordinary Americans than Romney was. (Nationscape samples are provided by Lucid, which runs a web exchange for survey respondents, and matches a group of demographic quotas. The survey data are then weighted to be representative of the American population.)
Meanwhile, many fewer Americans view Biden and particularly Sanders as sympathetic to the rich (61 percent and 41 percent, respectively). More Americans describe them as sympathetic to the center class, the poor, and other people like them. for instance , 60 percent say that Biden cares about the center class and 56 percent say he cares about people like them. Nearly identical fractions say this stuff of Sanders, as well. By these metrics, it's these Democrats, not Trump, who appear as if truth populists.
These differences in how Americans perceive Democratic and Republican candidates reflect broader images of the 2 political parties. for instance , when a special poll asked Americans “when you think that of individuals who are Democrats, what sort of person involves mind?” about 38 percent of respondents selected phrases like “working class,” “middle class,” and “common people,” but just one percent selected words like “rich” or “wealthy.” When asked about Republicans, 31 percent picked phrases like “wealthy” and “business executive” but only 6 percent chose phrases like “working class.”
Here’s the thing: That poll was from 1953. because the political scientists who unearthed this poll noted, party images are long-standing and verge on stereotypes. And stereotypes of parties, like many other stereotypes, are powerful and difficult to dislodge. This helps explain why, as social scientist Danny Hayes has shown, Democratic presidential candidates have long bested Republicans on the question of who cares about “people like me.”
Early on, it appeared that Trump could change the GOP’s image. In his speech announcing his candidacy, he famously promised to guard Social Security and Medicare, which are crucial to several Americans of modest means. During the 2016 campaign, he even suggested that he might raise taxes on the rich , including himself. His many breaks with Republican orthodoxy earned him scorn from conservatives.
But Trump has governed very similar to a standard Republican. The law he signed gave the most important tax breaks to the rich . His administration has proposed changes that would reduce the amount of poor people eligible for Medicaid and for food stamps. He has even flirted with cuts to Medicare and Social Security , although he seemed to backtrack quickly.
Trump’s actions may explain why, despite the talk about Trump changing the Republican Party , the party actually seems to be changing him — or a minimum of , the public’s perception of him. Today Trump embodies the GOP’s long-standing image because the party of the rich.
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Trump’s association with this image could open up a line of attack from his Democratic opponents in 2020. The likely economic devastation caused by the coronavirus complicates Trump’s ability to say , as he did in his State of the Union address barely two months ago, that we were within the midst of a “blue-collar boom.”
And Trump’s struggle to speak sympathy for people with the virus or scared of its effects makes it difficult for him to project a special image as a pacesetter . Democrats were already arguing that, as Biden put it, Trump has “no empathy” for the center class. That line of attack could also be even more tempting if the virus and ensuing recession still wreak havoc within the lives of ordinary Americans.
But Democrats shouldn’t assume that an empathy message will defeat Trump. it's going to not resonate much in an environment where Trump’s approval numbers are , as yet, fairly impervious not only to his conduct as president but also to economic fundamentals.
Moreover, perceptions of the presidential candidates’ empathy are not any magical predictor of who will win the election. Since the “cares about people like me” question was first asked on a survey during the 1984 campaign, Democratic candidates have had an “empathy advantage” in every presidential election. But clearly, they haven’t won all of them . Perhaps the very fact that Clinton had a smaller empathy advantage over Trump in 2016 contributed to her defeat, but it's difficult to isolate the impact of that factor relative to the various others which will have affected that election.
But public perception of Trump matters whether he wins or loses in November. The apparent fragility of his populist image shows how even politicians who appear to be “outsiders” flouting the norms and orthodoxies of their party struggle to flee long-standing party stereotypes.