In the 90s it was “The economy, stupid” that prescient politicos figured would be the highest impact issue for voters. Before that, it was a question of, “Are you better, or worse off than you were four years ago?” And after, there have been several similarly posed iterations of “What have you done for me, lately?”

The American electorate has long felt the sting of elections, and their associated policies, most acutely in their wallets or pocketbooks. And when it came to political loyalties (or lack there of), that sting resonated most in the middle-class.

Fast-forward more than three decades, and the economy is obviously still a top factor when voters are weighing who to send to the White House. Unlike 30 years ago, however (and less obviously), Americans’ perceptions about who best represents their economic interests have undergone a seismic shift — one that will have an impact on this election and those going forward.

More than 30 years ago, nearly 75% of Americans said Republicans represented the interests of wealthy Americans, but in 2024, only about half the public holds this view. On the flip side, a majority of Americans once believed the Democratic Party looked out for the poor, but far fewer — only 42% — believe this today. Perhaps most significantly, few Americans currently believe either party represents the interests of America’s middle class.

This is according to a recently released survey conducted by Survey Center on American Life and published by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Questions were asked of more than 6,500 adults on a wide range of topics, revealing what the report authors describe as an ‘unsettled electorate’ replete with uncertainty and apathy. There are several interesting takeaways among the survey results, but it is the shift in who Americans believe represents the interests of the American middle class, I believe, that will have the greatest influence on elections this fall, and beyond.

So what, exactly, is “the middle class”? In rough terms, the middle class is made up of those earning between two-thirds and double the national median household income, after adjusting for household size. Just over half of Americans (51%) are middle class by this definition, according to Pew Research. But, it’s shrinking.

In 1971, the share of Americans who were considered middle class was closer to two-thirds (61%). Despite the shrinkage, though, the middle class and their shifting sentiments will still have an outsize impact at the ballot box.

The AEI survey authors assert, “Americans increasingly do not believe Democrats represent poor and middle-class Americans, and fewer Americans associate the GOP with the wealthy’s interests.”

American Social Capital Survey

This is a bit befuddling on a surface level. After all, the Republican nominee for president is a billionaire real estate mogul from New York City, and the Democrat nominee likes to call himself “Lunch Pail Joe.” But if one descends below the surface, the eddy of populist grievances against the “globalist elites” is now more Republican than Democratic. An eddy whose pull the middle class has always been susceptible to.

To be sure, it is not as if the script has flipped completely. Among the 6,500 American adults (as opposed to “likely voters”) participating in the survey, only 29% believe the Republicans better represent the interest of the middle class — five percentage points lower than in 1990. But, as represented in the chart above, it’s the plunge taken by Democrats since 1990 that could make waves this election season.

From 1990 to 2024, Democrats fell 17 percentage points when respondents were asked who best represented middle-class interests, from 48% down to 31%, a virtual tie with Republicans. The drop was even steeper of those believing the Democrats look out for the poor, falling from 66% to 44% of respondents.

Why? The economy, stupid.

National Democrats have been boasting about how stellar the US economy is doing. Indeed, stock markets are up on a stick, unemployment remains at historically low levels, and recent fears of recession are dissipating. But the middle class are likely more moved by the total cost of the items in their grocery cart rather than the market value of their stock portfolios or the fact that their extra job to make ends meet isn’t necessarily reflected in the headline unemployment rate.

Therein lies the sentimental shift for the middle class. Inflation has been rip-roaring through grocery stores, housing and everywhere in-between, putting middle-class Americans further and further behind. Then these same people hear from the White House about the historic strength of the US economy.

For North Carolina voters, they hear national Republicans messaging policies to help “everyday Americans” instead of “serving the elites,” and North Carolina Republicans boasting of raising the standard deduction alongside income tax cuts, a boon for low- and middle-income families. These emphases are shifting how the middle class views the parties.

Despite the multitude of lightning-rod political and social topics that will soak up attention between now and November, the election is bound to go to whoever better earns the affection of the middle class.