The NYT/CBS poll (Sept. 10-14, 2010) is just one random sample, a national telephone poll conducted a few weeks before an important Congressional election. Yet the information in it indicates what is actually on the mind of registered voters, which is reason enough to pay close attention to what voters are saying. Some of the polling questions even go back decades, which allows one to put these current responses into context over the long term. The polling responses make no predictions about the election outcomes, of course. And random factors, like the weather on Election Day, still play a significant role in election results. I looked at the entire poll and composed a two-part report for America readers, with my comments.
Most important problems: When asked to name the “most important” problem, respondents’ views clustered around only two: the economy (32%) and jobs (28%). “Other” (11%) came in a distant third. Voters are very concerned about continued unemployment. In a jobs-related question, 62% of respondents said they were very or somewhat concerned that someone “in their household” would be out of work next year.
One can extract from these responses that a host of issues now being discussed regularly by pundits in the media barely register with voters. These “problems” include politicians and government (each at 4%); the budget deficit and health care (3%); immigration, education, the president, the war (2%); moral values and taxes (1%). The importance of any of these less than “most important” issues could spike, of course, but currently they garner almost no public attention when compared with the economy and jobs. Democrats and Republicans ought to listen closely to that.
Smaller government: Respondents do favor (48%) “smaller government with fewer services” over “bigger government with more services” (41%). Yet this question has been asked since 1991 and responses in favor of bigger government, which have ranged from 30% to 43%, average out at 38.4. In other words, since 1991 the percentage of respondents in favor of big government with more services has held steady or slightly increased. Since 1991, the number of those in favor of small government has averaged 49.8%, which means that they too have held steady or slightly decreased. So, while pundits have been making “smaller government” sound like a mantra, a must-have, or a growing phenomenon among voters, the views on each side have barely budged in 19 years.
Right direction: Respondents as far back as 1991 also have been asked whether the country is going in the “right direction.” The current poll found answers averaging in the 30% range over 11 polls all year long. That range is significantly lower than in 2009, which averaged in the 40%. But the longer view adds an important perspective: Since 2003 no response has exceeded 50%. And in October 2008, just two years ago, the “right direction” was just 7%, a record low. Compared to two years ago, then, respondents are much happier about the direction of the nation.
Political Parties & Washington: While Democrats ranked low on the approval/disapproval scale (30% approve/58% disapprove), they did markedly better than Republicans (20%/68%). Both parties improved in the ratings when respondents were asked whether, in general, they found the parties favorable/unfavorable: Dems. (45%/48%); Reps. (34%/56%).
Incumbents of both parties, however, do have to worry because 55% of respondents think it is “time for a new representative” from their own district in Congress. And 54% agree that the U.S. needs a third party. That party does not seem to be the Tea Party, however (see below), at least not now.
How are things in Washington? Most respondents said less than satisfactory, but they are not angry about it. Nearly a quarter (24%) said they are “satisfied but not enthusiastic” with things in Washington; 53% are “dissatisfied but not angry”; 20% are angry. This is a small but noisy bunch, given all the talk in the media about people’s anger over politics. When the angry group was asked the reason for their anger, 17% answered “partisan politics”; 13% said “unemployment”; and 12% said “not representing the people.” At least the first two are understandable, since partisanship in Congress has paralyzed Congress in many ways for the last two years.
Since proponents of the Tea Party tend to express anger rather routinely in the media, it is interesting to note that 20% of respondents (the same percent as those who are angry) also find the Tea Party favorable. Question is: Are these the respondents? That 1 in 5 compares with 1 in 4 (25%) who find the Tea Party unfavorable, as well as 18% undecided and 36% who said they haven’t heard enough. This means that right now, voters are not engaged or convinced by the Tea Party, but that could change within the next few weeks, particularly in some areas.
On favorability rating for Sarah Palin: 46% of respondents said they found her unfavorable, compared with 21% favorable, and 32% undecided or not having heard enough. When asked who best represented the Republican Party, Palin (6%) outranked all others, including her former running mate, John McCain (5%). What Republicans should see in these numbers is that no individual Republican has much voter support at this point.