Voters in both parties differ on societal changes but are unified in their dissatisfaction with Washington and insiders
Amy West, a 61-year-old retired schoolteacher, traces her frustration with the rest of the country to a local fight banning prayer at area schools more than a decade ago. “I have to have the Bible in my life,” she said.
A Republican from Vilonia, Ark., she plans to support Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in next year’s GOP presidential primary. She thinks he is best equipped to tackle her concerns, starting with the dwindling influence of religion in Americans’ daily lives.
Republican primary voters are overwhelmingly unsettled by societal changes transforming the country, a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll finds, while Democratic primary voters describe themselves as proud that the country has moved further to protect the rights of minority groups and to accept gay marriage.
The results show that, in many ways, Republican and Democratic presidential candidates are being forced to tailor their messages for deeply disparate groups. If there is a unifying theme, it is anger at the political system, the Journal/NBC News poll suggests.
Some 71% of GOP primary voters agreed when asked whether they felt “out of place” in their own country and uneasy about widespread illegal immigration, the shrinking role of religion in public life and the growing acceptance of gay and lesbian rights. Among these GOP voters, 45% strongly agreed with that view, compared with just 12% among Democratic primary voters.
This sentiment is sending many GOP voters into the camps of candidates articulating their fears, including Mr. Cruz, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and businessman Donald Trump, whose slogan is “Make America Great Again.”
By contrast, three of four Democrats voiced pride in how the country “continues to make progress as a tolerant nation” that has taken significant steps to protect the rights of African-Americans and same-sex couples, and to change how women are viewed. Some 45% of Democrats strongly held that belief, compared with 10% among Republican primary voters.
This trend helps explain former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emphasis on gay rights and support for other societal changes. She announced her support for same-sex marriage in March 2013.
“Candidates for both parties can win their respective primaries by appealing to progress on the Democratic side and unease on the Republican side,” said Democratic pollster Jeff Horwitt, of Hart Research Associates, which conducts the Journal/NBC survey with Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican firm.
But the general-election winner most likely “will be the one that speaks most powerfully to the anger and dissatisfaction that Americans are feeling about the economic and political systems,’’ which they believe are working for the powerful instead of “everyday” Americans, Mr. Horwitt said.
Indeed, 69% of poll respondents agreed with the statement that they “feel angry because our political system seems to only be working for the insiders with money and power, like those on Wall Street or in Washington, rather than working to help everyday people get ahead.”
That anger cuts across just about every partisan and demographic line. Some 54% believe the economic and political systems are “stacked against” against them, the poll found.
“I went for eight years without a raise—zilch,” said Kerry McVeigh, 62, a retired newspaper editor from Arizona who is leaning toward Mr. Cruz. “We’ve got to return to the boom times. Washington can help by getting rid of all the unnecessary rules and regulations and unnecessary taxes on businesses.”
The diverging concerns of the parties’ primary voters presents the eventual nominees with a delicate task: to sympathize with the most animated segments of their electorates without alienating the narrowing segment of voters who will be genuinely up for grabs next year.
The key may be channeling their collective anger. Among independents, for example, 44% strongly feel that the country’s political system only works for insiders, while 20% expressed strong pride in the shift to a more tolerant nation and just 16% were highly uneasy about some of the bigger tectonic shifts in the country.
“Whether you are liberal or conservative, many of the same things are angering you,” said Democratic pollster Peter Hart, another member of the Journal polling team. The intersection of anger is at Pennsylvania Avenue and Wall Street. Voters feel they are not competing on a level playing field.”
Many of those polled said their concerns predate Barack Obama’s presidency. Doris McCugh, 69, a retired nurse in Kentucky who backs Mr. Carson for the GOP nomination, worries that people have grown apathetic and are blind to the government’s overreach. “It felt safer years ago,” she said. “It begins with our banks failing. Then the government decides to bail them out.”
Ms. McCugh counts herself among the 45% of Republican primary voters who strongly agreed with the statement that “a lot of what is happening today makes me feel uneasy and out of place in my own country.”
By contrast, Jake Forsling, 23, believes that “Barack Obama has helped to drag this country into the 21st Century.” An environmental science student in Toledo, Ohio, Mr. Forsling supports Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary.
Michele Metych, 28, an editor in Chicago who supports Mrs. Clinton, said the growing acceptance for gay rights is “part of a larger trend in terms of growing social acceptance and tolerance.”
The poll also tested several presidential candidates in hypothetical general-election matchups. It found that Mrs. Clinton would face a close race against most of the top GOP presidential contenders, but that Mr. Carson has the best chance against her if the election were held now.
The poll found a dead heat in a test match-up between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Carson, with each drawing 47% support. By contrast, Mrs. Clinton outpolled Mr. Trump by an eight percentage points, 50% to 42%.
The Journal/NBC News poll of 1,000 adults, conducted Oct. 25-29, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. Additional interviews were conducted for some questions to achieve totals of 400 Republican and 400 Democratic primary voters. The margin of error for those groups is plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.