Pollsters: 'Everything is terrible'
By: Lucy McCalmont
August 10, 2014 07:03 AM EDT
Polls from major networks, researchers and newspapers agree: America’s in a bad mood.
In just one week, polls found politicians of all stripes are hitting approval numbers with record lows. The president finds himself roughly as popular as a trip to the dentist. The entire Democratic Party gets the thumbs down. Oh, and so does the Republican Party.
But it doesn’t stop there. Americans are also bummed out about the future in general, especially the economy. Things are so low that even an old favorite, sugar, polled poorly.
Pollsters say it all adds up to a country that feels “everything is terrible,” as one put it, a mood that campaigns should consider as they head into the midterm homestretch, when turnout should be all about enthusiasm – not pessimism.
“With an ‘everything is terrible’ mindset, I’m mostly thinking about how after several years of cantankerous and unproductive lawmaking in Washington, there are very few political figures or institutions who the public trusts anymore,” the Washington Post’s polling analyst Scott Clement said in an interview.
When it comes to candidates, voters are also less than thrilled with both incumbents and their challengers.
“What we’re really seeing in an unprecedented way, especially in the key Senate races, is that voters don’t like either of the major candidates,” said Tom Jensen, the director of the left-leaning Public Policy Polling.
Jensen pointed to Arkansas, Louisiana, Alaska and North Carolina, where Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, remains ahead. However, Jensen said it’s not because of high approval ratings.
“Hagan has a -10 approval rating, and usually if you have a -10 approval rating it means you’re doomed,” Jensen said, adding “but [Hagan’s challenger] Thom Tillis has a -23 favorability rating, so that race remains very competitive despite Hagan being an unpopular incumbent because voters really don’t care for her opponent either.”
The pollster added, “to a much greater extent than usual this year, with voters being so unhappy, is ‘so-and-so’ has a negative approval rating, but they still lead for reelection because people like the alternative even less.”
Not even hometown political heroes are spared.
”[Members of Congress] are no longer at the point where they get the benefit of the doubt from the public,” Clement said. “And the public has seen more and more issues where they’re just not happy about where things are going and the place they often look to blame is Washington.”
In a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Tuesday, the paper found for the first time in 25 years, that a majority of people disapprove of the job their own Congress member is doing. Clement said while people might have said Congress as a whole is doing a poor job, voters are “not willing to let their own congress member off the hook anymore.”
But the ill will towards Congress and Obama is nothing new, said Sarah Dutton, director of surveys for CBS News, which found near-historic lows for each party’s approval rating in its poll this week.
“It’s been low for quite some time,” Dutton said of Congress’s approval rating. “However, it’s now lower than it was in previous midterm elections.”
So what does this mean come November? Across the board, pollsters note that it throws turnout levels into question. Jensen said anger towards their own candidates coupled with anger for the opposition leaves little for voters to get particularly excited about. Two groups that could see an impact, however, are independent voters and third party candidates.
Jensen said the GOP in particular is seeing growing levels of disenchantment. However, while more Republican voters may being seeing red, Jensen says, that doesn’t mean they’ll vote that way this midterm cycle.
“What Republicans do have to be worried about is [voters] turning to a more conservative, third party candidate,” the pollster said, pointing to Montana’s 2012 Senate race, which saw a victory for Democrat Sen. Jon Tester. Jensen attributed Tester’s win to the draw split of GOP voters between the Republican and Libertarian candidates.
Jensen added that the GOP shouldn’t expect to see a similar gap against Democrats in the 2014 midterms as they did in the 2010 wave nor tea party enthusiasm.
Additionally, NBC News’s Mark Murray said there could be a noted absence among independent voters, who he said seem to be “tuning out from the election” and their enthusiasm is not mirroring the levels seen in 2006 and 2010. However, this might not spell disaster for all campaigns.
“If the middle of the country decides not to participate, then you end up having a simple base election, which makes it much easier for incumbents to hold on,” Murray said.
Murray said the outlet’s pollsters were struck by “just how angry the American public is right now,” but added that the increasing number of issues may be another factor that aids incumbents seeking reelection.
NBC’s own poll with the Wall Street Journal also released Tuesday saw record-low job approval rates for Obama and dismal numbers for Congress. But with plenty of blame to go around and plenty of issues angering voters, lawmakers are all feeling the heat, rather than targeted disdain towards one member or party.
“The one mitigating factor here is that there are so many different reasons for their dissatisfaction,” Murray said, who added that only a small number of lawmakers have been defeated in primaries so far. “You have Republicans are complaining about immigration, Democrats complaining that Congress isn’t working with them, Republicans wanting to impeach the president, Democrats blaming Congress, and all of these different complaints don’t really measure up to one single unifying message that probably is going to have every member of Congress running for the hills this election season.”
Unlike the 2011 debt ceiling and 2013’s government shutdown, Murray noted, “When you have a thousand different complaints, it’s hard to enact a lot of change at the ballot box.”
Clement, echoing Murray, said congressmen and women are “not really at risk.”
This, paired with the expectation that Washington gridlock and a slew of issues such as the economy and immigration reform will not be solved any time soon, means voters are likely to be the biggest losers in November.
There’s a silver lining for Obama, who Murray said has been “taking a lot of lumps” on foreign policy issues such as Ukraine, Iraq and the Middle East. These issues aren’t as long lasting as a “a cataclysmic economic recession” would be, Murray said. Though according to a Gallup poll released this week, voters are also pessimistic about the economy.
Other folks who can rest easy? Potential 2016 contenders. A Quinnipiac University poll this week showed New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s net approval rating dropped to its lowest point in three years, but Jensen said the Republican governor is an outlier, attributing his disapproval to conservatives who still dislike Christie’s closeness with Obama ahead of the 2012 elections and following Hurricane Sandy.
While some point to the fact that none of the possible GOP contenders are leading the pack, Jensen said that unlike 2012, where no candidate could rally the base, Republican voters are finding it hard to pick between the likes of Rep. Paul Ryan, Sen. Rand Paul, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush or former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. As for Democrats’ enthusiasm, Jensen said that will depend largely on whether Hillary Clinton announces a bid.
And Dutton, along with the other pollsters, said it remains up in the air whether things well get better anytime soon for voters.
“I think this malaise that we’ve seen for the past few years, we’ll just have to keep watching it,” Dutton said.