There was little sunshine in Florida this week after the presidential candidates arrived.
In back-to-back debates just miles apart, Democrats and Republicans painted a dark vision of America, a place where jobs are vanishing, leaders are corrupt and threats loom from across the globe.
Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders described a nation in “real crisis,” with a “rigged economy.” Americans are “a bunch of suckers” who’ve “lost everything,” Republican front-runner Donald Trump said the following night.
Washington is “killing jobs,” as Iranian leaders conspire to “murder us,” warned Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
Gloomy assessments of the country’s future have emerged as a constant refrain of the 2016 presidential contest, as candidates woo a frustrated and anxious electorate.
That insecurity, which pollsters say pervades discussions about economic, domestic and foreign policy issues, is setting the stage for an emotionally-charged general election – no matter who wins the primary contests. Voters, say strategists in both parties, fear the country is on a sharp downward slide and there’s little government can do to save it.
“That eternal optimism that Americans have is at risk right now,” said Republican pollster Neil Newhouse, a top strategist for Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign. “There’s a sense that something has gone awry and we’re no long in control.”
Even though unemployment is at the lowest rate since the 2008 recession, surveys show that a majority of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track, as they have for much of the past dozen years. In polls, respondents say they don’t expect life for their children’s generation to be better than their own.
The last time most Americans said they were “satisfied” with the direction of the country was in January 2004, according to Gallup tracking polls.
Katherine Cramer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, has been conducting extended conversations about voter attitudes with people in her politically competitive state since 2007.
“Things have definitely gotten worse in Wisconsin in terms of the overall mood,” she said. “It’s become a different place. People are more on edge, more distrusting of each other and their government.”
The most successful candidates have tailored their messages for the times, leaving behind the kinds of optimistic slogans that defined the campaigns of most recent presidents.
Cruz frequently warns that the nation is standing at the edge of an abyss, and it must “awaken the body of Christ” to pull back. At Thursday’s debate, Trump declared that “our jobs are going to hell.”
Even Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, known for offering a more toned-down evaluation of the country, offered a dim outlook. “Every institution in America has been failing us for the last 20 or 30 years,” he said.
Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, who often criticizes Trump’s slogan of “making America great again,” acknowledges some of the grimmer realities – even while trying to set herself apart as a leader who could unify the country. While she used to argue that the country is “already great,” now she vows to make it “whole”– an implicit acknowledgment that things have perhaps gone awry.
Democrats – and even some Republicans – believe voters will demand positive messages of renewal once the campaign enters the general election.
“At some point you'll have to say ‘here’s how I'll take the nation forward, not just make this a wrestling mud match',” said Republican pollster Ed Goeas, who’s working on efforts to defeat Trump.
But much of the worry stems from economic stress, a situation unlikely to change dramatically for most people before the fall elections. While a booming stock market and low interest rates helped the wealthiest sliver of the country, many Americans have yet to recover the ground lost in the recession.
The typical U.S. household earned $57,153 at the end of last year, according to Sentier Research. That total – after adjusting for inflation – is slightly below incomes in January 2000, meaning that much of the country has endured rising education and health care expenses without much in the way of pay raises.
“The roots of this mood are more economic but it’s compounded by looking at gridlock in Washington,” said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, a strategist for a super PAC supporting Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. “For people who feel that they are still struggling eight years after the crash, their patience has run out.”
That frustration has been channeled into a long list of grievances. Democrats decry greedy Wall Street traders and lead-poisoned water, lax gun laws and a failed criminal justice system. Republicans blame undocumented immigrants, political correctness and foreign terrorists for what they often depict as a country in decline.
At Democratic debates in Miami and Flint this week, Clinton fended off questions from immigrant families separated for years by deportation and parents worried about lead-poisoned water and mass shootings.
“Your government at all levels have let you and your children and the people of Flint down,” Clinton told a woman, who described being unsure if she will ever use the water in her hometown again.
Republicans, meanwhile, argued over lost jobs, threats from abroad and even the divisiveness of their own campaigns.
“They have anger that’s unbelievable,” Trump said of his supporters. “There is some anger. There’s also great love for the country. It’s a beautiful thing.”