As both a presidential candidate and president, Donald Trump has been said to have a special connection to "ordinary Americans" or "average Americans" while his "elitist" opponents are said to look down on them.
Of course, Trump's fame and wealth make him as much 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 class interests of GOP politicians. Trump, by contrast, was called "the people's billionaire" and credited for his populist appeal, which seemed to suggest that he could finally break free from his party's association with affluence.
But three years into his presidency, most Americans do not perceive Trump as particularly concerned about the middle class, the poor or people like them. They do see him as concerned about the wealthy, however. In fact, Trump is perceived no differently than Romney was at the end of the 2012 presidential campaign. Instead, it is Trump's likely Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, who is more widely perceived as sympathetic to the middle class. A president who once seemed ready to remake the GOP brand has been recast in its image - and that could have consequences for his reelection.
One way to show how voters perceive the interests of politicians is to ask Americans how well different leaders are described by the phrases "cares about the wealthy," "cares about the middle class," "cares about the poor" and "cares about people like me." When respondents were asked these questions about Romney in a YouGov survey conducted right before Election Day in 2012, 88 percent said that "cares about the wealthy" described Romney somewhat well or very well. Only 47 percent said that "cares about the middle 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 Americans thought that Obama cared about the wealthy. Compared to Romney, more said that Obama cared about the middle class (57 percent), the poor (61 percent) and "people like me" (54 percent).
In 2016, it looked as if Trump might be different than Romney. When the 2016 American National Election Survey - conducted using probability samples who either took the survey online or were interviewed face-to-face - asked respondents about how much the candidates cared about people like them, Trump lagged Hillary Clinton by less than Romney lagged Obama in 2012.
But as of today, Trump does not look much different than Romney did. In a March 2020 Democracy Fund-UCLA Nationscape survey, the vast majority of Americans (83 percent) said that Trump cares about the wealthy - many more than said he cares about the middle class (45 percent), poor (38 percent), and "people like me" (40 percent). Indeed, 74 percent of independents and even 23 percent of Republicans said that Trump did not care about "people like me." If anything, Americans may see Trump as less in touch with ordinary Americans than Romney was. (Nationscape samples are provided by Lucid, which runs an online exchange for survey respondents, and match a set of demographic quotas. The survey data are then weighted to be representative of the American population.)
Meanwhile, many fewer Americans view Biden and especially Sanders as sympathetic to the wealthy (61 percent and 41 percent, respectively). More Americans describe them as sympathetic to the middle class, the poor, and people like me. For example, 60 percent say that Biden cares about the middle class and 56 percent say he cares about people like me. Nearly identical fractions say these things of Sanders as well. By these metrics, it is these Democrats, not Trump, who look like the true populists.
These differences in how Americans perceive Democratic and Republican candidates reflect broader images of the two political parties. For example, when a different poll asked Americans "when you think of people who are Democrats, what type of person comes to mind?" about 38 percent of respondents selected phrases like "working class," "middle class," and "common people" but only 1 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. As 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 political 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 protect Social Security and Medicare, which are crucial to many Americans of modest means. During the 2016 campaign, he even suggested that he might raise taxes on the wealthy, including himself. His many breaks with Republican orthodoxy earned him scorn from conservatives.
But Trump has governed much like a traditional Republican. The tax law he signed gave the largest tax breaks to the wealthy. His administration has proposed changes that could reduce the number of poor people eligible for Medicaid and for food stamps. He has even flirted with cuts to Medicare and Social Security, although he appeared to back off quickly.
Trump's actions may explain why, despite the talk of Trump changing the Republican Party, the party actually seems to be changing him - or, at least, the public's perception of him. Today Trump embodies the GOP's long-standing image as the party of the rich.
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 claim, as he did in his State of the Union address barely two months ago, that we were in the midst of a "blue-collar boom."
And Trump's struggle to communicate sympathy for people with the virus or fearful of its effects makes it difficult for him to project a different image as a leader. Democrats were already arguing that, as Biden put it, Trump has "no empathy" for the middle class. That line of attack may be even more tempting if the virus and ensuing recession continue to wreak havoc in the lives of ordinary Americans.
But Democrats shouldn't assume that an empathy message will defeat Trump. It may not resonate much in an environment where Trump's approval numbers have been, as yet, fairly impervious not only to his conduct as president but also to economic fundamentals.
Moreover, perceptions of the presidential candidates' empathy are no 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 them all. Perhaps the fact that Clinton had a smaller empathy advantage over Trump in 2016 contributed to her defeat, but it is difficult to isolate the impact of that factor relative to the many others that may 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 political party struggle to escape long-standing party stereotypes.
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Sides is a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. He is co-author, with Lynn Vavreck and Michael Tesler, of "Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America."