Mon Oct 25, 6:25 pm ET
By JANE SASSEEN
As if incumbents didn’t already have enough to worry about, add one more thing to the list.
Optimism about the American system of government is at a 36-year low, yet most Americans blame the people in office — not the system itself — for all that’s going wrong, according to a new ABC News/Yahoo! News poll.
That means bad news ahead for incumbents on Election Day — particularly those of the Democratic variety. The underlying message of the new poll seems to be that new blood on Capitol Hill is the first step in getting back on track.
“In bad times, people blame those in power: It’s got to be your fault — you’re in charge,” says Larry Sabato, head of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
There’s little doubt that Americans, frustrated by the economy’s woes, are plenty worried about Washington’s seeming inability to successfully tackle that or many of the nation’s other problems.
Only 33 percent of Americans today say they are optimistic about “our system of government and how well it works,” according to the new poll, produced for ABC and Yahoo! News by Langer Research Associates. That’s the smallest number in the nearly dozen times the question has been asked over several decades. Back in the summer of 1974 — not long after President Richard Nixon resigned in the wake of Watergate — 55 percent of Americans were optimistic that the system was working.
The numbers today suggest levels of unhappiness not seen since the worst of the Watergate crisis, and “a sense that the political system is broken,” says Daniel Clifton, head of policy research for Strategas Research Partners. “Independents in particular think the economy is not working and the system is not working, and that has created a very anti-incumbent environment.”
Some of that reaction, of course, is cyclical. It reflects how hard many have been hit by the recession and the growing sense that a robust recovery is still very far away.
“This is a bad economic time for all countries,” says Richard Thorpe, a 61-year-old retired retail worker from Cleveland, Ohio, who voted for Obama. “It might take the next four years to get things [that are] this bad to what they should be.”
Or, as Sabato puts it, it’s hard to feel optimistic when pretty much “everything appears to be going to hell in a hand basket.”
“When economic or international conditions are unfavorable, Americans naturally reflect that in their view of the system and the future,” he adds. “But [those views] will inevitably change once the economy gets better, we get hold of the national debt, and we show we can accomplish some important things.”
But the numbers also appear to reflect deeper levels of worry about the position of the country and how well the political system is equipped to handle the challenges America now faces.
According to the poll, it’s not just that optimism is declining. A far greater sense of doubt about the system also pervades much of the country. Some 46 percent of Americans say they are uncertain about how well the system is working today, well above the roughly 27 percent who reported feeling uncertain in 1974 and many other years in between.
“We live in an uncertain time, and people are responding to that,” says Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant. “As the glory of the World War II era fades, we are becoming a very different country. The economic base is entirely different; we are no longer the food basket or the industrial motor for the world. Instead, we’re an overextended debtor nation, and people know that.”
None of that should bring any comfort to incumbents this year, especially those in the Democratic camp. Whether Americans are reacting to the short-term economic cycle or to the broader, longer-term problems, they are clear on where fault lies: with the political class running the show.
When those who are pessimistic or uncertain were asked whether they believe the problem is the system itself or the people who are running it, a 3-to-1 majority said the people in charge. Some 74 percent said the people running the government are at fault, versus just 24 percent who placed blame on the system itself.
One commonly cited reason: Professional politicians spend too much time looking out for their own interests; they no longer work for the interests of those who sent them to Washington.
“The underlying system is OK; [the problem] is the people who represent us. They forgot they represent us,” says Dale Goodno, a 67-year-old semi-retired truck driver from Beaverton, Oregon, who voted for John McCain in 2008. “I think that if you took maybe 10 people from each state who are not professional politicians and if they ran their government like they run their own business or family budget, then the country might make a comeback and might be the great nation it used to be.”
It’s also the case that, even when the country’s problems are at their worst, many Americans remain idealistic and believe in the efficacy of the system; to question it, argues Sheinkopf, feels almost unpatriotic. So when problems arise, “There needs to be a culpable party … to find a scapegoat,” he says. “That means the politicians.”
Most voters also recognize that there’s little that can be done short-term to change the system. Moreover, points out Frank Donatelli, who was the deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee during the 2008 presidential campaign, the country has rebounded energetically from previous periods, like the early 1980s, when deep economic problems also led to widespread doubts about whether the political system still worked.
“In this election, voters can’t do anything about the system. But they can do something about the people,” Donatelli says. “It’s a logical response for the public to say, ‘Let’s change what we can change.’ ”
Clifton argues that the anti-incumbent mood is even stronger than it was in 2006 and 1994, the last two times that waves of voter anger swept Congressional majorities out of control. In a recent Gallup poll, 56 percent of respondents said that congressional representatives did not deserve reelection — higher than the 50 percent and 45 percent recorded in those prior years.
Moreover, inexperience now seems to be more highly valued than experience. Asked whom they preferred as a hypothetical congressional candidate, 38 percent told Gallup that the best bet would be a Republican who hadn’t served in office. That handily beat a Democrat serving in Congress, at 24 percent, a Democrat who hasn’t been in Congress, at 16 percent, and a Republican serving in Congress, at 15 percent.
Of course, the anti-incumbent ire isn’t spread equally in this super-heated election season. The feeling that the politicians, rather than the political system, are at the root of America’s problems is far stronger among Republicans than among Democrats or independents. While roughly two-thirds of Democrats and independents surveyed said they thought the people in charge were to blame, fully 90 percent of Republicans surveyed said that’s where blame lies.
Given that Democrats now hold both houses of Congress and the presidency, that sky-high tally undoubtedly reflects widespread unhappiness among Republicans with many of the policies put in place by the Obama administration — and their enthusiasm to head to the polls next week to vote against the president’s party and its congressional incumbents.
“We’ll see a tremendous vote, but it’s not necessarily a vote for the Republican Party; it’s a vote against the status quo,” says the GOP’s Donatelli. “It’s not that they are in love with the Republican Party; it’s that we are the way they can express that unhappiness.”
Jane Sasseen is the editor-in-chief of politics and opinion at Yahoo! News.
METHODOLOGY — This ABC News/Yahoo News! poll was conducted Oct. 13-20, 2010, among a random national sample of 1,025 adults. Respondents were selected using an address-based sample design. Households for which a phone number could be ascertained were contacted by phone; others were contacted by mail and asked to complete the survey via a toll-free inbound phone number or the internet. See details here. Results for the full sample have a 4-point error margin.
… Ain’t d’hat ‘da troof?! …