Donald Trump has described himself as “really rich” — but by just about any standard, that label fits both the Republican presidential nominee and his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. In an election year characterized by populist energy over economic concerns like jobs and trade, the gap is striking.
Clinton’s newly released tax returns show that she and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, made more than $10 million in 2015. Trump is under pressure to follow suit, but he has yet to release his returns. He says he’s a multi-billionaire, but his refusal to release the documents has led to speculation that Trump may not be as rich as he claims.
What’s clear is that both Trump and Clinton earn vastly more than the income of the typical American household, around $54,000 per year. So it’s no surprise the candidates have been trying — and sometimes struggling — to connect with average voters.
Money, money, money
Money has been a big theme in this election. Trump often touts his wealth as evidence of his competence and success, promising to create jobs for working people. He’s argued that his wealth means he won’t answer to big donors — even though he has begun fundraising more aggressively since locking up the GOP nomination.
“I don’t need anybody’s money. I’m using my own money. I’m not using the lobbyists. I’m not using the donors. I don’t care,” Trump said during his campaign announcement speech at Trump Tower in New York last year.
Clinton, meanwhile, points to her middle-class, Midwestern roots. In her speech to the Democratic National Convention last month. Clinton said in the Rodham family, “no one had their name on big buildings. My family were builders of a different kind.”
Clinton talked about her grandfather working to build a better life by working in a lace mill in Scranton, Pa., and her father’s experience running a small business. Of course, Clinton grew up in an upper-middle class suburb of Chicago, and her father did well as the owner of a drapery business.
Trump, too, has tried to demonstrate that he understands the lives of regular people. Speaking to the National Association of Home Builders in Miami Thursday, Trump reminisced about his father — also a builder — touring some of his construction sites.
“My father would go, and he’d pick up the sawdust, and he’d pick up the nails – the extra nails. And he’d pick up the scraps of wood; he’d use whatever he could use, and recycle it in some form, or sell it. And it was a constant process,” Trump said. “And he did a beautiful job.”
At a campaign rally in Erie, Pennsylvania, he said he actually prefers the workers on construction sites to his wealthy peers:
“They say, you know, you’re really rich. How come you sort of relate to these people? Well, you know, my father built houses and I used to work in these houses,” Trump said. “I got to know the plumbers, the steamfitters, I got to know them all. And I liked them better than the rich people that I know. I know a lot of rich people. It’s true. They are better. I like them better.”
While Trump touts his ability to accumulate vast wealth in the real-estate business, Clinton has come under fire for the amount of money she and her husband have made since leaving public office.
In June of 2014, ABC’s Diane Sawyer asked about her lucrative paid speeches to audiences that have included Wall Street firms.
“We came out of the White House not only dead broke, but in debt. We had no money when we got there, and we struggled to, you know, piece together the resources for mortgages, for houses, for Chelsea’s education,” Clinton said. “You know, it was not easy.”
That answer was widely panned by Clinton’s critics and rated “mostly false” by Politifact.
Authentic versus on script
Republican pollster Frank Luntz says he’s no fan of either Clinton OR Trump, but he says Clinton’s carefully rehearsed style feels inauthentic to many working-class voters.
“To working-class voters, they want you to let loose,” Luntz told NPR. “They want you to say what you mean and mean what you say.”
Despite Trump’s massive wealth, his “willingness to say just about anything to just about anyone at any time” has strengthened his credibility, Luntz said, with working-class people who are “tired of being talked down to.”
But Luntz added that Trump’s slipping poll numbers over the past few weeks suggest his style may be turning off the upper middle-class voters the Republican Party has long relied upon.