This column first appeared in The Amendment, a new biweekly newsletter by Errin Haines, The 19th’s editor-at-large. Subscribe today to get early access to future analysis.
Some polls this year have focused on a lack of excitement for both incumbent President Joe Biden and running mate Kamala Harris and for former President Donald Trump — or any of his Republican challengers.
So when The 19th’s second annual poll with SurveyMonkey came out, I was drawn to results that showed an increasing number of Americans — though still not a majority — said democracy and the economy are working well for them.
It’s a boost driven by Democrats on both issues. On democracy, 45 percent of U.S. adults say our system is working well for them, compared with 40 percent in 2022.
That number is up 14 percentage points among Democrats and down a single point among Republicans. The increase was 10 points for those with a college degree, a group increasingly aligned with the Democratic Party, and four points for those without a college degree.
And 40 percent of adult Americans say the economic and financial system is working well for them, up from 36 percent last year. Republicans remained unchanged on the issue, while Democrats’ response was eight points higher. The increase was greatest for Americans over 65, up eight points, compared with a two-point increase for 18- to 34-year-olds and a three-point increase for 35- to 64-year-olds.
Typically, priorities like health care, education, and the economy have been among the things that can weigh on Americans headed into an election year.
But after a contentious battle in 2020, followed by an insurrection, ongoing false claims of election fraud and a former president who will spend 2024 between the campaign trail and a courtroom, democracy has increasingly emerged as the new kitchen table issue.
Voters are pulling up a proverbial seat, concerned about the direction of our country in terms of whether our systems will hold, and how free, fair and equal they feel as part of their government.
The president has been traveling the country pitching “Bidenomics,” touting his administration’s record-low unemployment and job creation. And the vice president has been an effective road messenger for core Democratic groups on an overall conversation about the erosion of rights — including reproductive and ballot access — as a threat to democracy.
What does it mean to think about how issues, rather than candidates, could impact voter enthusiasm going into 2024? What could these numbers mean for voter turnout? The choice between circumstances or candidates is an age-old debate in our politics and elections, said Fordham University political scientist Christina Greer.
“We can understand why certain people would feel like the country’s on track, but could also give many examples of why people still feel like it’s off track,” Greer said. “It’s about their personal situation.”
I talked to two people who took our poll about why they answered as they did.
Yvonne Martins’ opinions about democracy and the economy are intertwined and tied largely to her worldview and experience.
The 42-year-old politically independent White woman lives in Nevada, Missouri, where she said she operates an eBay store and is studying computer information at Strayer University. She has used government assistance to help her get a cellphone, internet service and housing. It helps, but she worries the safety net currently supporting her could be taken away — which is why she responded that both democracy and the economy are working “somewhat well.”
“I’m afraid that in the future they’ll take all my rights away,” Martins said, explaining that her government-issued phone was shut off a few months ago.
At the same time, Martins strongly disapproves of the job Biden and Harris are doing, and said, “I don’t even know who the vice president is.” She hasn’t voted in recent presidential elections but feels that it’s important for her to participate next year and has been “paying a lot more attention.”
“I’m just hoping that one of these years, we’ll get a president that will get to the root problem of things,” she said, pointing to the issue of public transportation as an example.
“If these businesses that are miles away are hurting for people, they need public transportation to get these people that want to work to these locations,” Martins continued, including herself. “I ride my bike … I would get a regular job, but I can’t, because I’m far away. My bicycle is not reliable transportation.”
Katrease Rogers told me that she likes the job Biden and Harris are doing, particularly on the economy and democracy. The 43-year-old Black Democrat said she’s seen progress in her own neighborhood in West Hartford, Connecticut, especially on the issue of housing.
“There wasn’t a lot of housing available, and I’ve seen that change in the last three years,” said Rogers. “I see more people applying for housing and getting approved. There are more jobs available, people are saying they’re getting jobs, so that does make a change.”
Rogers responded that the country’s economic and financial system is working “somewhat well.” She is disabled and said she has been out of work “for years.”
“My personal situation is on hold. The economy is better for other people, but I’m still in the same boat. Economically, I’m in the same place I was before.”
Rogers said she feels democracy is working “very well” because she said Biden “stands up for all races and is trying to make a change.”
“I do see that,” she said, adding that she also has “positive thoughts” about Harris and that the combination of issues and the candidates is motivating her to vote for Biden and Harris again next year.
“I see her and Biden work together well,” Rogers said. “These two seem to have unity and be on the same page and care about people. It makes me want to vote for them because seeing that makes me say, ‘They’re listening to us, they hear us.’”
Polls are a snapshot in time of our politics, but the one constant I’ve seen after covering four presidential cycles is that as much as voters have their priorities, they also want to feel like a priority to the people seeking their vote. The candidates who are successful aren’t just relatable; they relate to the voters, making them feel seen, heard and understood. This cycle, whether it’s the economy, democracy or other issues, voters will want to know which party seems to care about them.
“There are two camps,” Greer said. “For people who feel like democracy is trending better, is that feeling like we don’t have a president who is actively supporting white nationalists? For those who don’t feel it, is that about police officers killing people in broad daylight, or white nationalists going into churches and grocery stores and killing people?”
Democracy has now become a kitchen table issue for many voters wondering about whether and how they could be disenfranchised next year. People are paying attention to ballot access, vote nullification, and to ballot initiatives or state legislation aimed at changing the rules in response to certain electoral outcomes. How our democracy works — and for whom — is a topic for many households in a way it hasn’t been in our recent history.
Elections are about whether voters think they’re better off than they were four years ago; for some, democracy has now become part of that calculation. Already on the campaign trail, Biden and Harris have been focused on democracy and the economy as key Democratic priorities and a strategy to galvanize voters.
How Americans feel about both of these issues matters, because the story our country sells at home and abroad is that both our economy and democracy are the strongest in the world. Whether voters are sold is a question we should be asking as they consider who will lead our country.