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Analysis

They’re better off than four years ago. But four more years of Trump? Nope

2020 brings the weirdest polling anomaly in four decades

President Donald Trump walked on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, early Sunday, June 21, 2020, after stepping off Marine One as he returned from a campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla.
President Donald Trump walked on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, early Sunday, June 21, 2020, after stepping off Marine One as he returned from a campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla.Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

Ask Rick Johnson of Claremont, N.H., and he will tell you that he is, without a doubt, better off than he was four years ago. While Donald Trump has been president, the 32-year-old registered Republican changed careers and now is making significantly more money. He and his wife paid down debt, took their three young children on an expensive Disney World vacation last year, and this very week, there are workers installing a new roof on his house.

But ask him who he is voting for and he will tell you, without a doubt, it’s Joe Biden.

He credits his own family’s work and decisions with their success. As for Trump’s presidency he sees, “not the America that I grew to know and love.”

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Almost 40 years ago to the day, Ronald Reagan stood on a debate stage in a tight presidential election and told Americans that when they go into the voting booth they should ask themselves a simple question, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

Since then, that phrase has been not only part of the American political lexicon, but a short-cut question pollsters have used to gauge the mood of the country.

Heading into the home stretch of the election, if voters felt like they were generally better off, then chances are that the incumbent’s reelection prospects were generally better off also.

That’s not true this year.

In swing states and nationally, polls have found 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’s clear that Biden’s destiny is not wrapped up in this question this particular year,” said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, which conducted polls recently with the Boston Globe in Maine and New Hampshire. “It’s almost as though people are saying that their own house is in order, but that there is this dark cloud outside called COVID and the president’s inability to handle it.”

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The pair of Suffolk/Globe polls of the two New England states showed similar results. In New Hampshire, 53 percent of likely voters said they were better off than they were four years ago, compared to 29 percent who said they were worse off and 16 percent who said there was no difference. In Maine, 47 percent said they were better off than they were four years ago, 36 percent say they were worse off and 15 percent said they were the same.

Trump trailed Biden in both states.

This mirrors the polling nationally. A New York Times/Siena College national poll released on Tuesday showed 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, credit Trump, and are giving him their vote. Kim Lewis-Lash, a massage therapist from Waldoboro, Maine, is also among those who say she is better off than she was four years ago. The 56-year-old Republican said her 401k has definitely improved during that time (though it has taken a hit lately) and that, in general, life has improved in her community.

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Sure, she isn’t a big fan of all of Trump’s antics or his tweets, but she sees Trump as “the only one who can lead us back out of this mess.”

Still, that America is currently in “a mess” is about as bipartisan as the idea that Americans are better off than they were four years ago. Consistently around two-thirds of voters say that the nation is currently on the wrong track.

Given that COVID-19 appears to be on the upswing in a majority of states, this should not be a surprise. Further, the “four years ago” question is largely seen as one about pocketbook issues that do not address COVID, foreign policy, and a racial awakening that the president has not been viewed as a leader on.

There is also just a general mood, some voters say, and that it is a problem. In the Globe/Suffolk poll of New Hampshire, 19 percent of likely voters said the most pressing issue facing the next president is the need to bring the country together. That ranked higher than eight of the nine other options offered to respondents.

Consider Maureen Adams, a 65-year-old retiree who just moved into a new adult community in Hollis, N.H. She said her family’s economic situation is better off since Trump entered the White House, "but what does that even mean when you have been going to the grocery store for months and cautiously seeing if others are wearing masks and you have to avoid them.

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“Look, some of my neighbors are able to have a second house in Florida, but they can’t go there this winter,” Adams added.

Adams, a Republican, voted for Trump in 2016. Four years later and saying she is better off, Adams is voting for Biden this time around.


James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell.