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Behavioral Science

Why do people vote the way they do? Unhappiness, says MIT Sloan behavioral scientist, outweighs all other factors

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New research underscores how governments struggle to stay in power when citizens are unhappy

Cambridge, Mass., September 22, 2020—New peer-reviewed research, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, has found that county-level voter unhappiness prior to the 2016 election mattered more to Donald Trump’s electoral success than a host of other factors, including the county’s level of income, its unemployment rate, population age, and racial composition.

The study was led by George Ward, a behavioral scientist at the MIT Sloan School of Management, together with Jan-Emmanuel De Neve of the University of Oxford, Lyle H. Ungar of the University of Pennsylvania, and Johannes C. Eichstaedt of Stanford University.

“The question of why Trump won the White House in 2016 has inspired a wide range of research studies, newspaper articles, and think pieces,” says Ward. “Some have pointed to economic factors such as stagnant wages among middle-class Americans and job losses arising from the decline in domestic manufacturing and the rise in trade competition. Others have focused more on cultural issues such as racial and religious identity, and feelings of status threat. Our study takes a rigorous look at one thing many of these explanations have in common: they describe a pretty unhappy population.”

Long-run data suggest that happiness has been on a steady decline in the U.S. since the 1970s, despite large increases in GDP.

To investigate, the research team drew on more than two million responses to the Gallup Organization’s U.S. Daily Poll during the years preceding the 2016 election, aggregated to the county level. The survey asks participants questions about how satisfied they are with their life overall, how much purpose they feel they have in their life, as well as their day-to-day experience of various positive and negative emotions such as happiness, enjoyment, stress, and fear. This dataset allowed them to build a detailed picture of the wellbeing of different and diverse areas of the country.

The researchers found that wellbeing was a powerful predictor of the 2016 electoral outcome regardless of levels of income, unemployment rates, population age, and racial makeup. Counties comprised of voters who expressed low levels of life satisfaction and positive emotions (and high levels of negative emotions) were strongly associated with an increase in Trump’s vote share over and above what a Republican candidate in a given jurisdiction would ordinarily receive.

These findings were confirmed at the individual level using well-being measures in the American National Election Studies as well as presidential approval data in the Gallup World Poll collected during Obama’s time in office. The researchers also demonstrated the relationship between happiness and voting in other elections. They found, for instance, that unhappier counties were more likely to vote for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries.

“At the individual level, Trump was adept at mobilizing unhappy people who previously voted Democrat or who didn’t vote in prior elections,” says Eichstaedt. “While we don’t necessarily know why these members of the electorate were unhappy, it does appear that they were looking to cast a vote against the government, and the establishment more generally.”

The researchers noted that a growing number of governments around the world have focused their attention on measuring the subjective wellbeing of their citizens. Many countries generate national wellbeing statistics to guide and evaluate their public policies. The U.S. has generally lagged behind on this idea, however.

“If our study has one clear message it’s that unhappy people vote against the status quo,” says Ungar. “The data suggest that governments should pay close attention to the happiness of citizens if they want to get re-elected.”

The researchers say that it is difficult to predict the role that voter happiness will play in the upcoming presidential election. Amidst a global pandemic, economic crisis, and social unrest, Americans have experienced a record drop in happiness and life satisfaction, according to Gallup’s most recent figures.

While this does not bode well for Trump’s chance of re-election, the study also found that low levels of happiness correlated with a higher vote share for anti-establishment candidacies.

“Trump often presents himself as an outsider, even now after four years in office,” says De Neve. “His anti-establishment stance could appeal to unhappy voters. But to the extent they think that Trump, the incumbent, has become the establishment, past data suggests that unhappy people are likely to vote against him.”

About the MIT Sloan School of Management

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