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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Why Are Americans Less Involved in This Year’s Election?

As noted by my colleague Jeff Jones in his recent review, Americans’ collective thought given to this election is lower than has been the case in the two most recent midterm elections in 2010 and 2006. Likewise, enthusiasm and self-reported motivation to vote are also down. The differences are particularly large compared with 2010, with a drop of 13 percentage points in thought given to the election, 18 points in motivation to vote and a drop of nine points in enthusiasm. 

At the same time, as we all know well by this point, Americans have extraordinarily negative views of Congress across a variety of measures. Thus, we can say that this negativity is apparently being transmuted by voters into apathy rather than action. One might hypothesize that voters would be energized to vote in an effort to get rid of members of Congress and effect change. Instead, we find that Americans, on a relative basis, are in fact not displaying any unusual signs of heightened interest in the election - despite their high level of disdain for Congress. 

There are many reasons why this anomalous situation exists. We know that Americans can be very negative about the body of Congress as an institution, yet at the same time are much more positive about its individual members -- particularly from their local area. That paradox helps explain -- at least in part -- why incumbents in general get re-elected in overwhelming numbers. It may also explain a lack of interest in elections in general, since there is relatively little emotion (the mother’s milk of politics) involved in routinely re-electing one’s nice, local member of Congress.

But there may be several other reasons why interest in this particular election is down. 

As Jeff Jones pointed out in his analysis, this is an election in which the public doesn’t have a clearly obvious way to change things with their vote -- given that control of Congress is divided. In 2006 and 2010, the public could focus its disdain on the one party that controlled both houses of Congress -- the Republicans in the former, the Democrats in the latter. Now, with Republicans in control of the House and Democrats in control of the Senate, it is more difficult for voters to know whom to blame, and therefore more difficult for them to figure out if voting for a Republican or a Democrat would bring about the most change. 

It’s also important to note that there is no one single, overarching problem this year that can serve as a focused motivator for Americans. As I noted, emotion drives politics and turnout, and a clear focus on a dominant issue provides an easy way to shorthand what’s involved in an election and, in turn, engender collective emotions. But, at this point, Americans’ perceptions of the most important problem facing the country are splintered. Our latest October update provides a long laundry list of problems volunteered by average Americans, ranging across the economy, dysfunctional government (more on that below) and then a list of single-digit concerns including healthcare, immigration, the federal deficit, declining ethics, education and more recently Ebola and the situation relating to Islamic militants in Syria and Iraq. The highest individual problem mentioned (the economy in general) gets just 17% of mentions. Economic problems overall net out at 38%. Lots of issues, but none dominate.

In 2010, by contrast, what was really bothering Americans was the economy. In fact, fully 69% of the most important problem mentions in October 2010 dealt with the economy, almost twice what it is now. Plus, although it didn’t show up in the open-ends to a great extent, conservative Americans in 2010 were focused on their reaction to the recently passed Obamacare legislation. Back in 2006, the dominant problem was the war in Iraq, garnering 28% of all mentions, making it the single most important problem mentioned. In 2006, economic concerns netted out at only 19%, half as much as is the case today. 

So, the theory goes, in 2006, Democrats in particular had a galvanizing issue in the Iraq war, which functioned to increase their emotional motivation to get out and vote, and in 2010, Republicans were motivated by their concerns over the economy, coupled with a reaction to the Obamacare plan that had been passed earlier that year. This year, the issues are more spread out, and that means a lack of concentration of effort on one issue that could serve as an emotional rallying focus point for voters. Hence, relative apathy. 

Finally, I would say it’s reasonable to entertain the hypothesis that Americans may be less interested in the elections this year than in the previous two elections because they have reached the point where they don’t believe their vote for a specific person, of either party, is going to change much. As noted previously, the second most frequently mentioned individual problem in the country today, according to the people, is dysfunctional government. The way government works and does not work also ranks high on the list when we measure the importance of a series of problems to this specific election. We recently asked Americans what the new Congress should do after the dust settles from this election and the new crop of people take over in January. Americans are most likely to say that the new Congress should figure out how to work together, how to get things done and how to listen to and represent the people. These are not specific issues, but general procedural concerns. In other words, the people are more interested in the broad issue of fixing government than any particular, more partisan issue.

All this makes it possible that voters think it may not matter who controls Congress, since they doubt that a lot will change as a result. The people feel that Congress is broken, and most likely feel that it tends to stay broken as elected representatives come and go. So it’s certainly possible that some voters are less than overwhelmingly enthused about voting this year, because they care less about the issues dividing Republicans and Democrats, and care more about the big picture concern of fixing the institution as a whole.

In 2010, the stars were aligned differently. The Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, both of which had passed the Affordable Care Act, there was a great deal of dissatisfaction with the state of the economy, and dysfunctional government was lower on the list of most important problems. Now, there is a divided Congress, no one dominant problem to generate emotion, and record levels of concern about the government and Congress in particular -- all of which may be contributing to the lower interest in the midterm election that we are seeing so far this year.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Democrats’ and Republicans’ Confidence in Their Party to Handle Key Issues

Americans who identify with one of the two major political parties, not surprisingly, say their party will do a better job than the other party handling almost any issue we can put in front of them. But this confidence in one’s party varies across issues, and that variance provides insights into today’s political landscape. On some issues, fewer partisans are willing to say that their party does the best job and concomitantly more (perhaps reluctantly) say the other party would do the better job. Other issues generate strong confidence from partisans on both sides of the aisle.

A good example of an issue that has fairly even party confidence is the Affordable Care Act. Here an analysis of our recent survey data finds almost perfect parity. Eighty percent of Republicans (including those who lean Republican) say the GOP can do the best job handling the Affordable Care Act (presumably including many who would say the best way to handle it would be to repeal it), while 14% choose the Democrats. On the other hand, an identical 80% of Democrats say that their party can best handle the ACA (presumably many who say they would strengthen and support it), while 13% choose the Republicans. 

One might assume that this type of mirror image would be the same for all issues -- partisans highly likely to choose their party on issue after issue.

But, as noted, that’s not the case. 

The most extreme counterexample comes with the issue of equal pay for women. Only 49% of Republicans say their party is best able to handle the issue of equal pay for women, while 36% of Republicans concede that the Democrats are better able to handle it. That’s a net GOP advantage among Republicans of only 13 percentage points (that is, subtracting the 36% who choose the other party from the 49% who choose their own party). On the other hand, a whopping 86% of Democrats say their party is better able to handle the issue of equal pay for women, while only 6% choose the Republicans. That’s an 80-point net Democratic advantage. In other words, Republicans on a relative basis tend to concede this issue to Democrats, while Democrats are overwhelmingly convinced that their party does the best job on it.

In the other direction is the federal budget deficit. Eighty-five percent of Republicans choose their party as best able to handle the deficit, compared with only 7% who choose the Democrats. Democrats are less confident in their party on this issue, although not to the extreme that we found with Republicans for equal pay for women: 64% of Democrats choose their party, while 25% choose the Republican Party. So we have a net confidence advantage for Republicans.

The chart below groups the 13 issues we measured in our Sept. 25-30 poll into those where the Democrats have a clear confidence advantage, those where the Republicans have a clear confidence advantage, and those that are at a rough parity.  

Four of the six issues with above average importance to Americans as a whole have a Party Confidence Index in favor of the Republicans. These are the economy, the way the federal government works, dealing with the Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria, and the deficit. One of the issues of above average importance has roughly equal Party Confidence -- jobs. One has a clear confidence advantage for the Democrats -- equal pay for women.

In other words, Democrats concede some weight to the Republicans in terms of their ability to handle four key issues in the election, while having above average confidence in just one issue.

Another way of looking at the challenge for the Democrats is to take into account the relative importance of the issues to Democrats themselves. The economy and the way the federal government works are ranked in the top five most important issues among Democrats. A third -- the Islamic militant situation in Iraq and Syria -- is sixth in importance. The Republicans have a confidence advantage on all three of these issues. The only one of the major issues on which the Republicans enjoy an advantage where the Democrats don’t rank as important is the federal budget deficit (fourth from the bottom on their list).

Thus, rank-and-file Democrats across the country are in a position in which they, in essence, admit that their party is not optimally positioned to handle several issues that they (the Democrats) recognize as important, including the economy, the dysfunctional government, and the Islamic militant situation in Iraq and Syria. On the other hand, Republicans have an edge or are tied on each issue they consider to be highly important. 

Monday, October 13, 2014

Despite Intense News Coverage, No Increase in Americans’ Worry About Ebola

A Huffington Post headline on Monday about the Ebola virus, taking up the entire screen in Huffington Post’s typically large, bold font, read: “The Most Severe Health Emergency Seen in Modern Times.” Meanwhile, the Voice of America headlined a story on the same topic: “New U.S. Ebola Case Raises Fears,” while The New York Times headlined a story on the crisis thusly: “W.H.O. Chief Calls Ebola Outbreak a ‘Crisis for International Peace.’”

One might think, with this type of apocalyptic news coverage, the American public would increasingly be worried and concerned about their own chances of catching the disease, and/or their government’s ability to handle it.

Not so.

We find hardly any movement at all in Americans’ concerns about Ebola when comparing interviewing done this past Saturday and Sunday (Oct. 11-12) with interviewing conducted the previous week (Oct. 4-5).  

Here are the trends:

• Overall, 23% of Americans worried yesterday about getting the Ebola virus this week, compared with 22% last week.

• In addition, 16% of Americans were concerned that they or their family would get Ebola this weekend, compared with 14% last weekend. 

• And 60% of Americans were confident that the government could handle an outbreak of the Ebola virus in the U.S. this weekend, compared with 61% last weekend.

None of these week-to-week changes are statistically significant. And keep in mind that, in turn, these attitudes were remarkably similar to attitudes about H1N1 or swine flu back in 2009. 

There may be a delayed reaction to the news coverage. An increase in concern may be forthcoming, particularly if there is news of more people contracting the disease or if more deaths are reported. It may also be that, as long as the Ebola virus is confined to just a few specific locations within the country, the vast majority of the public who are not in those locations will not be concerned. Whatever the reason, and whatever may happen in the future, however, the bottom line at this juncture is that overall concern levels are no higher now than they were for the swine flu breakout some five years ago, and have not changed at all over the past seven days.

Friday, October 10, 2014

American Public Attitudes Toward Affordable Care Act Frozen in Negative State

Speaking at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, earlier this week, President Barack Obama extolled the positive impact of the Affordable Care Act, his signature legislation, saying, “While good, affordable healthcare might seem like a fanged threat to the freedom of the American people on Fox News -- it’s turns out it’s working pretty well in the real world.”

Earlier in the speech, the president ticked off the specific accomplishments of the Affordable Care Act:

  • “Today, we have seen a dramatic slowdown in the rising cost of healthcare. When we passed the Affordable Care Act, the critics were saying, what are you doing about cost. Well, let me tell you what we’ve done about cost. If your family gets your healthcare through your employer, premiums are rising at a rate tied for the lowest on record.”
  • “Because the insurance marketplaces we created encourage insurers to compete for your business, in many of cities they’ve announced that next year’s premiums -- well, something important is happening here -- next year’s premiums are actually falling in some of these markets. One expert said this is “defying the law of physics.” But we’re getting it done. And it is progress we can be proud of.”
  • “We’re covering more people at the same time. In just the last year, we reduced the share of uninsured Americans by 26%. That means one in four uninsured Americans -- about 10 million people -- have gained the financial security of health insurance in less than one year.”
  • “Meanwhile, partly because healthcare prices have been growing at the slowest rate in nearly 50 years, the growth in what healthcare costs the government is down, also.”
Clearly the president believes that the Affordable Care Act has been a resounding success, with quantifiable benefits in these types of very specific areas.
But we just don’t see evidence that the American people agree.
In fact, the most important conclusion from our recent analysis of Americans’ opinions of the Affordable Care Act is just how stable these attitudes are, and how negative they continue to be. Overall approval of the ACA is now at 41%, while disapproval is at 53%, and that’s roughly where it has been for a year. 
Approval was slightly higher in surveys conducted from November 2012 to last October, including the only poll (November of 2012), which showed approval higher than disapproval. But from last November to the present, approval has vacillated only in a narrow range between 38% and 43%, while disapproval has varied only between 51% and 55%. 
Importantly, this encompasses the time period when the exchanges were open and when the percentage of Americans who are uninsured dropped dramatically -- from as high as 18% in the second quarter of 2013 to 13.4% in each of the most recent two quarters. (Thus, our data clearly show substantiation for Obama’s assertion that “we are covering more people.”) There was much publicity about this drop in the uninsured. But through it all, attitudes toward the ACA have been essentially frozen in time.
Part of this attitudinal rigidity reflects the irrefutable fact that the Affordable Care Act, as evidenced by its “Obamacare” sobriquet, is a highly politicized piece of legislation. Many Americans both on the left and on the right have essentially knee-jerk reactions to it -- and these reactions aren’t subject to a lot of change. Thus, no matter what information may trickle into Americans’ consciousness from news coverage of the ACA, it doesn’t seem to matter. Attitudes are hardened. In our most recent survey, the approve/disapprove split among Democrats is 73% vs. 23%, while among Republicans the split is 9% vs. 86%. Independents tilt negative at 39% vs. 53%. If we go back to late last year, before the exchanges opened, we find that 71% of Democrats approved and 91% of Republicans disapproved -- very, very similar to the comparable attitudes today. As I indicated, hardened attitudes.
It could be argued that one reason attitudes about the Affordable Care Act are so fixed is that, in reality, the law doesn’t directly affect the majority of Americans. But we have seen a steady increase in the percentage of Americans who, in fact, say that it does affect them and their family, increasing from 28% in November 2013 to 43% in this most recent survey. This is one of the few changes that we have measured, suggesting that Americans are not totally unaware that the law is in place and having an effect.
The problem for President Obama and other proponents of the ACA: The increase in the percentage of Americans who say the law has affected them has come both among those who say it has helped them and those who say it has hurt them. In short, Americans are perceiving both negative and positive consequences of the law. To be specific, the percentage who say the law has helped them has gone from 9% in November 2013 to 16% today, while the percentage who say the law has hurt them has gone from 19% last November to 27% today. That’s a seven-percentage-point increase in “helped” and an eight-point increase in “hurt”. So, the general net negative view of the impact of the law has remained essentially intact, even as the absolute numbers have gone up.
Obama and other ACA proponents would argue that there should be a sharper increase in the percentage who say it has helped them. But we just don’t see it in the data. 
The majority of those who say the law has hurt them are Republicans, and the majority of those who say it has helped them are Democrats, which leads us to conclude that some of these views on the personal impact of the law may be more political wishful thinking than actual, real world impact. Still, the overall change in the helped/hurt numbers from 2013 have been steady on both sides of the political aisle. Last November, Republicans’ ratio of perceived help to hurt was 1% vs. 29%.  Today it is 4% vs. 40%. For Democrats, the ratio has gone from 15% helped vs. 8% hurt to 27% vs. 15%.
This basic steadiness of ratios of helped-to-hurt may help explain why the response to the basic approval question has remained constant over the past year, even as more Americans perceive that it is having an impact. 
All in all, President Obama clearly has a problem in terms of the public’s acceptance of the piece of legislation that is almost certainly destined to go down in history as one of his administration’s top accomplishments. He and his allies perceive that the law has been a significant success, helping Americans’ healthcare situation in many ways. The American public, so far, doesn’t agree.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Obama’s September Job Approval Rating Among Hispanics Is Lowest of His Administration

President Barack Obama’s job approval rating among Hispanics in September was the lowest monthly average of his administration on an absolute basis, and also the lowest on a relative basis compared with his approval among all adults.

Obama’s job approval rating among Hispanics for the month of September was 47%, down from 52% in August. September’s 47% is by one percentage point the lowest monthly average ever; his previous lowest month among Hispanics was 48% in August 2011.

The five-point differential between monthly Hispanic approval and overall approval is the lowest such gap since Obama took office. As I noted in this analysis, that gap had risen to as high as 23 percentage points in late 2012 and early 2013. The gap was also small in the summer of 2011, reaching six points at times. But the five-point gap in September is by one point the lowest to date.

The most likely cause of this deterioration in Hispanic support for Obama is the delay on dealing with immigration, as this Washington Post report suggests. Hispanics, it’s worth remembering, are more likely than other Americans to say immigration is the top problem facing the country.

One note of at least some encouragement to the Obama administration is the fact that Hispanic job approval moves up and down more than job approval among other demographic groups. This fluidity means that Hispanics’ differentially higher job approval for Obama can, in theory, rise as fast as it has fallen -- perhaps when the administration acts on immigration reform.

One final note. My discussion here pointed out that the president had not been suffering on a relative basis among women, despite some claims to the contrary. For September, the data show that Obama’s gap among women is about two points higher than the national average, which is slightly, but not substantially, lower than the average for his administration. In short, there are no signs that Obama’s traditional gender gap in approval is diminishing to a significant degree -- at least through September.

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