The poll of 802 Americans nationwide conducted March 21 to 23 offers an-depth look at views on the economy and how they are now influencing political choices. The survey finds that "the economy and unemployment" is the top issue in the presidential election, the choice of 25 percent of respondents, followed by 19 percent who chose "foreign policy, world leadership and combating terrorism." The poll's margin of error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
The survey found that an even 24 percent of Americans say Clinton and Trump have the best policies for the overall U.S. economy. The two front-runners for their parties' nominations are also dead even at 21 percent on who has the best policies to "increase your wage." And Democrat Clinton has just a 1-point advantage on GOP front-runner Trump on which candidate is best for a respondents' personal financial situation.
"The poll tells us that the battlegrounds over which the election is going to be fought are largely economic but there's no clear advantage for either front-runner going into the election," said Jay Campbell of Hart Research Associates. The poll was conducted jointly by Hart from the Democratic side and Public Opinion Strategies from the Republican side.
Of course, people vote for reasons other than the economy and so it's difficult to say how consequential the results are for the overall election. But the results do suggest a potentially more competitive race when looked at from the view of the No. 1 issue on the mind of the public, the economy.
That's in the part because the poll shows no single candidate's economic policies have broad support. On several questions, the combined responses of "none of the above" and "not sure" either beats both front-runners, or comes within just a couple of points.
Clinton shows stronger support than Trump on health care and on trade while the two are tied on immigration. Trump is seen as having the best policies for large corporations and the wealthy, but it's unclear if that's a negative. Asked what qualities respondents found most attractive in Trump, nearly a third replied "successful businessman." On Clinton, a third replied "cares about people, the poor, middle class, working people."
The survey shows that neither of the other two Republican contenders, Ohio Governor John Kasich or Texas GOP U.S. Senator Ted Cruz have captured the overall public's imagination on any single economic issue. On most, their combined support is half or less than that of Trump's or Clinton's with all-adults.
The conventional wisdom is Clinton has more of a lock on the Democratic nomination than Trump has on the GOP nod. But the CNBC survey shows that on key economic issues, Bernie Sanders is more of a challenge to Clinton than Kasich and Cruz are to Trump. For example, Sanders is virtually tied with Trump 25 percent to 26 percent on which candidate is judged to have the best policy for regulating Wall Street and the big banks. Clinton has the support of only 16 percent of the public on the issue. Clinton leads with support of 25 percent of the public on who has the best policies for the middle class, followed by 21 percent for Sanders and 16 percent for Trump.
Another plus for Trump: The poll finds a majority of Americans are angry about both the political and the economic system and this "angry vote" breaks for the Republican front-runner, although not exclusively. Nearly three-fourths of the public is angry or dissatisfied with the political system in Washington, compared with 56 percent who are angry or dissatisfied about the economy. This group favors Trump on the economy over Clinton 28 percent to 21 percent. Of those dissatisfied or angry with the economic system, Trump leads on the economy 27 percent to 19 percent for Clinton.
The poll, however, found that 57 percent of the public is happy or satisfied with their personal financial situation, and this group judges the policies of Trump and Clinton about even for the overall economy.
Curiously, income isn't correlated with anger. Fifty-five percent of people who earn $100,000 or more are dissatisfied or angry with the economic system, the same percentage as those who earn $30,000 or less. And the wealthiest Americans are more likely to be angry or dissatisfied with the political system than the lowest income Americans.
Meanwhile, Americans continue to give fair to middling responses on the outlook for the overall economy, their wages and home prices. For example, just 27 percent of the public judge the current state of the economy as excellent or good; 45 percent say it's fair and 26 percent judge it as poor, though that is the lowest percentage since 2008. Just 28 percent of the public say their income is higher than it's been in the past, 30 percent say it's lower, and 39 percent say it's about the same. Of those who say it's lower, a third report it's because they've retired, and 36 percent say it's because they've either taken a new job at lower pay, gone from full to part-time work or have lost a job completely.
At 53 percent of the public, stock ownership is on the higher side of the poll's long-run average, but Americans are fairly pessimistic on the outlook for stocks. Only 31 percent of the public say this is a good time to invest, the lowest percentage since September 2014. The percentage is likely heavily influenced by the recent sharp market declines at the beginning of the year, although stocks have rebounded sharply to erase much of the losses.
Trump is seen as best for the stock market by a wide margin. Fully 31 percent say his policies would be best for the stock market's performance, compared with just 17 percent for Clinton. As many Democrats as Republican's think Trump would be best for stocks.
Meanwhile, 55 percent of Americans say the government should not have the power to break up the banks. The percentage is driven by overwhelming Republican opposition but bolstered by relatively strong support from Democrats and independents.