(Un)Happiness and Voting in US Presidential Elections

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

Authors: Prof. Jan-Emmanuel De Neve Dr. George Ward

Ward, G., De Neve, J.-E., Ungar, L. H., & Eichstaedt, J. C. (2020)


A rapidly growing literature has attempted to explain Donald Trump’s success in the 2016 U.S. presidential election as a result of a wide variety of differences in individual characteristics, attitudes, and social processes. We propose that the economic and psychological processes previously established have in common that they generated or electorally capitalized on unhappiness in the electorate, which emerges as a powerful high-level predictor of the 2016 electoral outcome. Drawing on a large dataset covering over 2 million individual surveys, which we aggregated to the county level, we find that low levels of evaluative, experienced, and eudaemonic subjective well-being (SWB) are strongly predictive of Trump’s victory, accounting for an extensive list of demographic, ideological, and socioeconomic covariates and robustness checks. County-level future life evaluation alone correlates with the Trump vote share over Republican baselines at r = −.78 in the raw data, a magnitude rarely seen in the social sciences. We show similar findings when examining the association between individual-level life satisfaction and Trump voting. Low levels of SWB also predict anti-incumbent voting at the 2012 election, both at the county and individual level. The findings suggest that SWB is a powerful high-level marker of (dis)content and that SWB should be routinely considered alongside economic explanations of electoral choice.

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