Wrapping up a Wild Ride: A 2016 Exit Poll Review (EXIT POLL)

What was that all about?

ByABC News
May 10, 2016, 7:00 AM

— -- What was that all about?

"That" is the wild ride of the 2016 primary season, and ABC News exit polls conducted across the primaries provide illuminating answers. For Republicans, it was about demand for an outsider fueled by profound disenchantment with economic and political conditions. For the Democrats, a deep sense of economic unfairness also has played a role -– but without the level of divisiveness that rent the GOP.

As often is the case with election politics, the economy is a good place to start. Unemployment is down to 5.0 percent, below its pre-recession levels –- but economic discontent remains high. Underemployment is one factor -– while also down, it’s nearly double the unemployment number. Long-term unemployment, while also well down, remains high by historical standards.

Perhaps most important is the long-term trend in lagging incomes. Americans with a college degree have seen their real median weekly earnings rise by nearly 23 percent in the past 35 years. All well and good – but those who lack a four-year college degree have seen their real incomes decline by 9 percent. And they account for nearly seven in 10 Americans age 25 and older. Most people, then, feel like they’re doing less well –- because it's true.

That harsh reality played out on both sides of this year's primaries and caucuses for which we have exit poll data. (Note, not all questions reported here were asked in every state.) Forty percent of Democratic voters were "very" worried about the state of the future economy -– a high level of strong worry in its own right -– and that soared to 66 percent among Republican voters. Eighty-four percent of Democratic voters to date have said that the economic system favors the wealthy. A plurality of Democrats –- and notably, a majority of Republican voters -– said they believe trade agreements cost more jobs than they create.

Other factors were at play as well in the exit polls, analyzed this season for ABC News by Langer Research Associates. Consider first some cross-party comparisons:


Ideological divisions were sharper than ever, especially given an influx of liberals into the Democratic primaries. Liberals accounted for 24 to 34 percent of Democratic primary voters in exit polls from 1976 to 1992. That rose to 46 or 47 percent in 2000, 2004 and 2008. This year it soared to 62 percent –- a level never before approached. ("Very" liberal voters moved from 16 or 17 percent in recent past cycles to 25 percent in this year's contests.)

The GOP saw a similar trend, if less pronounced. The share of conservatives jumped from the mid-to-high 30s in 1976 and '80 to around six in 10 from 1988 forward, peaking at 67 percent in 2012. This year? Conservatives advanced to 76 percent of primary voters, easily a new high.

One consequence of these trends is that the number of moderates participating in either party's primaries has fallen to new lows. Moderates fell from 54 percent of Democratic primary voters in in 1980 to 32 percent this year. On the Republican side, moderates peaked at 51 percent in 1976. This year -– 22 percent.

Gender and Race/Ethnicity

Even as they matched in ideological polarization, voters in the parallel primaries continued to look far different on other measures. One example: Women accounted for 58 percent of Democratic voters, up 9 points from the 1976 low to match their high. Far fewer GOP primary voters were women, 49 percent, about their typical share.