Some variant of “the economy” or “jobs and the economy” has topped the list of voters’ priorities in most every poll conducted since the Great Recession began. Even before then, "It's the economy, stupid," has been a truism of American politics since Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992.
But what do voters mean when they say they are concerned about the economy, and how do they want leaders to tackle the economic challenges we face? This week’s WBUR tracking poll shows voters have a nuanced opinion about economic growth. Voters left behind by recent economic progress are calling for an approach that focuses more on balance and less on velocity. Put another way, they want to see a rising economic tide that lifts all boats, not just the yachts.
We asked voters which of the following goals the next governor should set: achieving as much economic growth as possible, even if it means some groups gain more than others; or ensuring economic gains are distributed more evenly between groups, even if it means slower economic growth overall. Just under half (49 percent) favored slower, more equitable growth, while 37 chose faster growth.
So more Massachusetts voters would sacrifice economic growth in the name of equality. They are OK with a smaller pie as long as it’s more equally sliced.
A 12-point split on this question may not seem overwhelming, but looking at responses by demographic group reveals a much starker divide. Out of 32 demographic categories tracking party registration, gender, age, education, income and geography, only seven show more voters favoring unchecked growth over a more even distribution. And these seven categories overlap considerably with one another. To varying degrees, men, the very wealthy, younger voters and Republicans want to see as much economic growth as possible. All the other demographic groups fall on the side of a more even distribution.
Voters' preference for more equitable growth seems related to a perception that previous economic gains have not been equally shared. Only about half (52 percent) of voters think they are better off than their parents were at their age, and these figures differ widely by social class and income. Two-thirds of voters who identify as either upper or upper-middle class say they are better off than their parents, compared to just 27 percent of those calling themselves lower or lower-middle class. Similarly, those with lower household incomes are far less likely to say they have realized this once-cornerstone of the American Dream.
Voters may vary on assessing their own situation, but across all income brackets they are pessimistic about the next generation's prospects. Only 20 percent expect the next generation to be financially better off than their parents; 46 percent think their situation will be worse. Even the wealthiest voters, who are more likely they are better off than their parents, are concerned about their children's futures.
The question of how to grow also plays strongly into the race for governor, with Baker supporters in the poll calling for more growth and Coakley supporters more equality. Other polls corroborate this finding. In last week’s UMass Amherst poll, which also found Coakley leading narrowly, the Democrat was seen as better for the poor and middle class. This edge on the “middle class” item is especially important, since 90 percent of likely voters see themselves as somewhere in the middle class.
Voters continue to say jobs and the economy is their top issue, but these findings suggest a more complicated picture. More voters want an economy where the gains are shared more broadly. This idea cuts across more demographics groups than a vision focused on growth without regard to equity. So as you parse the polls that say candidates should focus on "the economy," realize that different voters can mean very different things.