Poll: On the left and right, voters express anxiety over future

Among GOP-leaning registered voters surveyed by the USC Dornsife/L.A. Times poll, Donald Trump, right, is the front-runner with 25%, but Ben Carson is closely trailing. In California, they're virtually tied.

Among GOP-leaning registered voters surveyed by the USC Dornsife/L.A. Times poll, Donald Trump, right, is the front-runner with 25%, but Ben Carson is closely trailing. In California, they’re virtually tied.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

One year before the presidential election, a pervasive disquiet has shaped voter attitudes, with a majority of Republicans pessimistic about moral values and the increasing diversity of the country’s population, and Democrats uneasy about an economy they see as tilted toward the rich.

By more than 2 to 1, voters both nationally and in California say they are more worried than hopeful about changes in the country’s morals and values. By nearly the same margin, more worry than express hope about the changing national economy. And by 5 to 1, they say they are worried about how the nation’s politics have changed.

California voters and those nationwide largely agree on those points but diverge on others. Nationally, for example, voters divide almost evenly on whether cultural diversity worries them or makes them hopeful. In California, those who are “mainly hopeful” about the changes caused by cultural diversity outnumber those “mainly worried” 56% to 41%.


Those concerns — detailed in a new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll, conducted online by SurveyMonkey — have been driving voter decisions about which candidates they favor for president. Both in California and nationwide, they have helped propel two nontraditional candidates, businessman Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, to the forefront of the Republican field.

Trump tops the field nationally, but barely, the poll found. He has support of 25% of registered Republican voters to Carson’s 21%. Statewide, the two are essentially even, with Trump at 20% and Carson at 19%.

Two Republican senators in their first terms, Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas, now provide the strongest challenges to the leaders. Rubio, who has gained endorsements from several GOP elected officials in recent days, moved into third place, with support of 14% of Republican voters in California and 12% across the country; Cruz got 11% statewide and 10% nationally.

The statewide figures represent significant moves by both Cruz and Rubio since a USC/Times poll of California voters taken in September.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the party’s onetime front-runner, fell to 4% both in California and nationwide. Nationally, that puts him in a tie with Carly Fiorina. Statewide, Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive who ran unsuccessfully for the Senate from California five years ago, drew 6%.


On the Democratic side, economic anxieties have helped fuel Sen. Bernie Sanders’ challenge to the party’s front-runner, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. She received just under half the vote, 48%, both statewide and nationally. The independent senator from Vermont got support from 3 in 10 Democratic voters, the poll found. Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland, continues to barely register, getting 2% nationwide.

Sanders has run an ideological campaign emphasizing breaking up the nation’s biggest banks and restricting big-money donations to politicians. His support reflects that; he runs much closer to Clinton among Democratic voters who identify themselves as liberal, both statewide and nationally, than among voters as a whole. He also does well among voters younger than 30.

But the poll finds another base for his support: Sanders leads Clinton by a large margin among self-described independents who lean toward Democrats. Independents can vote in Democratic primaries in California and some other states, although getting them to turn out in a primary is sometimes difficult. And Sanders runs much closer to Clinton among voters who feel anxious about their economic futures than among those who feel hopeful.

Those findings suggest that Sanders has tapped into a well of voters who feel disaffected from the political establishment and economically stressed, much as Trump has, although with a very different ideology.

This USC/Times poll, conducted online in English and Spanish, questioned two representative samples of registered voters — 2,009 statewide and 3,035 nationally — from Oct. 29 to Nov. 3.


The respondents were drawn from the roughly 3 million Americans who take SurveyMonkey polls each day and weighted to match demographic factors measured by the census, including age, race, gender and education level. The results have an error estimate of plus or minus 3 percentage points for the statewide sample and 2.5 percentage points for the national sample.

Voters’ downbeat mood is particularly notable in light of economic numbers typically associated with good times. The nation’s unemployment rate, 5%, is the lowest since April 2008, and the economy has grown steadily, albeit slowly, since the recession officially ended in June 2009.

Still, by 70% to 29%, voters see the country as headed in the wrong direction. California voters are only marginally more positive, with 63% saying the country is headed the wrong way and 34% seeing the nation as being on the right path.

That sense of the country headed the wrong way has been true now for a dozen years, through two presidencies, for “the longest period of sustained pessimism in more than a generation,” said Neil Newhouse, a veteran Republican pollster who advised Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012.

Pessimism is particularly profound among white voters, especially those without a college education. In California, fewer than 1 in 4 non-college-educated whites say the country is on the right track, and 70% say they are worried about the way the economy has changed. Nationally, the worried share among the group is even higher, 74%.


By contrast, racial and ethnic minority voters have a considerably more upbeat view, particularly those who have graduated from college.

Those two groups — whites who have not graduated from college and minorities who have — stand at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Non-college-educated whites have become a bulwark for Republicans, while upwardly mobile minority voters have reshaped the Democratic Party.

In California, where about half of college-educated minority voters are optimistic about the economy, the two groups are of similar size, each about one-fifth of the electorate. Nationally, whites without college degrees outnumber college-educated minorities by about 3 to 1.

Among the Republicans in the presidential race, several candidates have tapped into the pessimistic mood of whites who did not graduate from college, none more directly than Trump, whose slogan “Make America great again” expresses a sense of better times gone.

Trump has a significant lead among white voters nationwide who have not graduated from college. Rubio, by contrast, does notably better with the college-educated; he is in first place with that group of voters among Republicans in California.


Trump’s strongest base of support, however, comes from those troubled by the effects of immigration.

Nationally, voters divide closely over whether “immigrants from other countries mainly strengthen American society” or “mainly weaken” it, with 49% seeing immigrants as a source of strength and 43% as a weakness.

In California, with its much larger population of minorities, 59% see immigrants strengthening America and 35% say they “mainly weaken American society.”

Trump’s backers are overwhelmingly in the “mainly weaken” camp: 73% in California and 82% nationally take that view.

Carson’s supporters, by comparison, overwhelmingly say they are worried about changes in the nation’s morals and values. They are also far more likely to be regular churchgoers than backers of Trump, who draws most of his support from people who seldom or never attend. Nationally and in California, 1 in 4 Carson supporters say they attend religious services more than once a week, far more than the rest of the GOP field.

On the Democratic side, fewer voters express concern about economic change than do Republican voters. Instead, Democrats’ unease centers more on the sense that the economy has tilted too much in favor of the rich.


Asked which is a bigger problem, “unfairness in the economic system that favors the wealthy” or “over-regulation of the free market that interferes with growth,” voters split sharply by party.

Among self-identified Democrats, more than 8 in 10, both statewide and nationally, name unfairness as the bigger problem. Republicans mostly say the opposite, with just under three-quarters naming over-regulation.

By roughly 60% to 40%, voters overall side with the Democrats on that issue. But that does not translate into belief in government’s ability to solve the problems voters see in their lives.

Only 1 in 10 voters nationwide, and 1 in 8 in California, say that the federal government “increases opportunities for people like me.” Half of voters nationally and 4 out of 10 in California say the government “gets in the way.”

Twitter: @davidlauter