Americans split on whether they were better off four years ago

August 20, 2020, 12:00 PM UTC

When President Ronald Reagan ran for president in 1980 and defeated incumbent President Jimmy Carter, he asked Americans, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” They clearly thought not, and voted Carter out of office.  

When the Economist/YouGov Poll asked the question this week, Americans appear uncertain about whether they are better off today than they were four years ago when President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden were in the Oval Office.  

In mid-February, more Americans believed they were “better off now” than they were four years before. But that positive evaluation has disappeared. Now, three in five (60%) Democrats and about a quarter (23%) of Republicans believe they were better off four years ago than they are today. Americans overall are split: about two in five (41%) now say they were better off four years ago, and 38 percent believe they are better off now. 

The shift likely has a variety of reasons behind it, but one does stand out: In the mid-February Economist/YouGov Poll, just over a third of Americans (39%) worried about personally contracting COVID-19, and the virus appeared more of a threat to China than to the United States. Now, about three in five (63%) are worried. 

Certainly, the spread of the virus in the last six months has affected how Americans look at their lives, with more than 170,000 recorded US deaths and a sharp economic downturn as many Americans retreated to their homes. In February, 44 percent of the public said they were better off now than they were four years ago, while a third said they were worse off.  

Now, the two percentages are nearly even, with slightly more calling themselves worse off than better off. The question continues to bring out partisan answers: Republicans still say they are better off, though the percentage has declined 13 points since February. Among independents, it has dropped five points. It has moved hardly at all among Democrats. 

As for perceptions of the state of the country, by two to one Americans believe it was in better shape four years ago. Most Republicans still maintain it is in better shape now, but that percentage has dropped 23 points. There is a 13-point drop among Independents and only a small change among Democrats.  

Americans are dealing with a pandemic that nearly half of them describe as worse than they expected when they first heard of the outbreak, just over six months ago. Only one in five believe that it hasn’t been as bad as they feared.  

COVID-19: Personal Effects

Fewer than a third of Republicans (29%) say the pandemic has been worse than they expected. Somewhat more believe it has not been as bad as they feared. A majority (57%) of those surprised by the severity of the pandemic are concerned that it might get even worse. Half say cases are increasing where they live. On all these questions, Republicans are more positive about the pandemic situation than Democrats.  

However, personal experience of the pandemic goes beyond partisanship. Nine in 10 Americans have worn face masks. Nearly as many Republicans as Democrats have been laid off from work because of the pandemic. More than half of Democrats – and nearly half of Republicans – have had a close friend or family member lose a job or have been laid off themselves. One in four has had trouble paying housing costs during the pandemic.  

But party differences re-emerge on questions about how to deal with the pandemic. Republicans are evenly divided on whether or not there should be a nation-wide mandatory mask-wearing policy, though those Republicans who have been personally affected by the virus are more supportive of a mandatory mask policy. Nearly all Democrats (92%)  support mandatory face masks.  

See the toplines and crosstabs from this week’s Economist/YouGov Poll 

MethodologyThe latest Economist survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,500 US registered voters interviewed online between August 16 – 18, 2020. The sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, and education based on the American Community Survey, conducted by the US Bureau of the Census, as well as 2016 Presidential vote, registration status, geographic region, and news interest. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all US citizens. The margin of error is approximately 3.4% for the overall sample. 

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