Anger is clearly the buzzword of the 2016 presidential campaign, especially on the GOP side of the aisle. Google the word with Republican and, like me, you might get more than 24 million hits (vs. 606,000 when matched with Democrat). Exploring why people are "Mad as Hell" will be the focus of an event sponsored by the Inquirer on Wednesday night at the Independence Visitor Center. I'll have the privilege of speaking prior to a panel discussion that will be moderated by my colleagues John Baer and Dan Biddle and feature Daily News columnist Solomon Jones, Roll Call editor Melinda Henneberger, former Gov. Ed Rendell, and Farah Jimenez, president of the Philadelphia Education Fund.
I'll be ready to challenge the conventional wisdom regarding our angry electorate. I want to make the case both anecdotally and with data that while some among us are indeed angry, they don't represent the majority. Still, left unchallenged, the angry voters will continue to have an outsized influence in the general election, as they have had in the primaries.
I watched the angry storyline take hold. On roughly a dozen occasions during this campaign season, I was a CNN election-night panelist. If you watched, you may have seen my colleagues and me with our faces buried in laptops. Often we were analyzing exit surveys from those who had just cast ballots. Republican rage was a constant in those numbers. When asked their "feelings on the federal government," many GOP voters said "angry" or "dissatisfied." Democrats were rarely asked the same question, although I suspect if they were asked their feelings about Wall Street or income inequality, we would have seen a lot more anger among them, too.
For example, in Iowa, 42 percent of Republicans said they were angry, in New Hampshire the number was 39 percent, South Carolina and Florida 40 percent. Despite the resulting headlines, I grew suspicious about these numbers representing the total electorate. So, in March, I asked on my website, which better describes your mood, "angry" or "hopeful"? Among the 1,666 who voted, 32 percent said the former and 68 percent the latter. The poll was unscientific, but a week later, Lynne Vavreck, a political science professor at UCLA, challenged the conventional wisdom about angry voters in a column for the New York Times.
She cited the Index of Consumer Sentiment, one of the longest-running measures of Americans' views on the economy, and the General Social Survey, which, since 1972, has asked Americans to "take all things together" and rate their level of happiness. Her data challenged the narrative that the nation is in a funk. For example, one GSS report, published in April 2015, found that 32.5 percent of people in 2014 said they were very happy, an increase of 3.7 percentage points since 2010.
If that's true, what explains this disconnect?
On Wednesday I'll argue that it's indicative of the outsized role played by those among us with the most fervor, as compared with the rest of the nation. Pew Research Center has documented the influence of passion, noting that it rests on the ends of the political spectrum. That's where you find the activists. They are the most reliable voters. The people who put up yard signs. Hang a bumper sticker. Write checks. And are angry.
But if there is a new "silent majority" in the nation, its members are not PO'd tea party activists or millennials feeling the Bern, but rather, the tens of millions of Americans who are not angry, but thus far not engaged in the election. Consider that only 16 percent of voters participated in a primary or caucus in 2012. And this year, in Iowa - despite all the buildup, the TV commercials, and the opportunity to go and hear any candidate speak in person - just 180,000 Republicans and 170,000 Democrats participated in a caucus - a mere fifth of the 1.6 million Iowans who voted in November 2012. It's an even smaller percentage of the Iowans eligible to vote in a general election.
My argument will be that those who have participated, especially on the right, are over-representative of anger, and Donald Trump has been the beneficiary. Of the 42 percent of Iowa Republican voters who said they were "angry" at the federal government - Trump won 30 percent of them, when he still had roughly a dozen competitors. In New Hampshire, 39 percent said they were "angry" and 44 percent of them backed Trump. He took the same percentage of the 40 percent of "angry" voters in South Carolina. He claimed 59 percent of the 40 percent of "angry" Florida Republicans.
The good news for those of us not piqued is that there aren't enough angry voters (alone) to win the White House. No doubt you've heard that Trump received more votes than any Republican running for president. That's true. Trump received 13.9 million votes this primary and caucus season. But he also set a record for the most votes cast against a top vote-getter - more than 17 million voted for another choice.
According to the Pew Research Center, roughly 57.6 million people, or 28.5 percent of eligible American voters, cast a ballot in the 2016 primaries. Trump won 24.1 percent of the total votes cast, which is only 6.9 percent of the votes of eligible voters. Trump needs to build significantly on the nearly 14 million who have already voted for him. Consider that four years ago, President Obama won reelection with 65.9 million votes. (In 2008, he received 69.4 million, a record.)
Don't misunderstand - I won't deny that anger exists in the electorate, or that it could be a vehicle for Trump's continued success. But I intend to give comfort to the contented by arguing that we still have time to turn down the tone.
When I speak, I'll offer seven steps that would help. They include increased voter participation, professionally drawn district boundaries, and campaign-finance transparency, which would seem to be the "reform" with the greatest likelihood of both passage and constitutionality.
But I'll also tell the gathering that time is short. Anger is metastasizing, and it's time for the rest of us to take control of the political debate.
Michael Smerconish can be heard from 9 a.m. to noon on SiriusXM's POTUS Channel 124 and seen hosting "Smerconish" at 9 a.m. Saturdays on CNN.
"Mad as Hell? Voter Anger in the 2016 Election" will be held from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Independence Visitor Center. Register by Monday at www.philly.com/electionpanel, or contact Jennifer Wolf at 215-854-5791 or firstname.lastname@example.org.