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Magazine / Heartland Monitor Poll

A Show-Me State

The public isn’t confident that either party knows how to get the country moving again.

Dale Chandler of Brooklyn waits in the New York State Department of Labor employment center while looking for work and trying to resolve a tax issue from his brief employment with the census earlier this year.(Getty Images)

As Republicans in Washington prepare to share power with Democrats, most Americans remain unconvinced that either party’s agenda by itself will solve the nation’s most pressing challenges, according to the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll.

One month after an election that delivered a sharp slap of repudiation to President Obama, the poll found that Americans are divided almost in half over his job performance, and over whether Obama or congressional Republicans should take the lead in setting the nation’s agenda. But, mostly, the survey confirmed that Americans are still unhappy with the country’s direction, doubtful that their personal financial situation will improve much over the next year, and eager for the two parties to work together—even as they remain uncertain that either side knows how to lift the country from its deepest downturn since the Depression.

Those attitudes surfaced most clearly on a question that asked respondents their reaction to the Republicans’ takeover of the House of Representatives in last month’s election.

 

About two-fifths of adults spoke in strongly partisan terms. Eighteen percent said they were enthusiastic about the outcome because it meant that “Republicans can advance an agenda to significantly reduce taxes, the size of government, and regulation.” On the other side, 22 percent said they were “worried [that] Republicans will go too far in turning back the programs President Obama has put in place.”

But most respondents expressed ambivalence rooted in uncertainty that either party can tame the nation’s woes. Twenty-one percent said they were “not convinced that [the] agendas of either party can solve our problems” and are “pessimistic they can work together to find solutions.” The largest group, 36 percent, also said they were not convinced that either party’s policies could fix the nation’s problems, but said they were optimistic that the sides would find a way to cooperate for progress.

Nearly half of Democrats worried most about the GOP’s rolling back Obama programs, and exactly half of Republicans said they welcomed the victory as a chance to advance a small-government agenda. But just under half of Republicans, and just over half of Democrats, picked one of the options that expressed doubt that either party’s agenda alone could get the job done.

Among independents, that sentiment was endemic. Just 10 percent of independents said they welcomed the GOP victory as an opportunity to roll back government, and only 18 percent said they feared it as a threat to Obama’s programs. Fully 70 percent of independents said they believed that neither party’s agenda alone could solve the country’s problems. That big bloc divided between 39 percent of independents who were optimistic that the two sides might still work together effectively and 31 percent who were doubtful that they will cooperate to get much done. “When the Republicans were in control of Congress before, they didn’t get us anywhere,” said Valerie Juhasz, a production manager and an independent voter in Sylvania, Ohio, who responded to the poll. “People voted them back in because they weren’t happy with the Democratic House, but I don’t think we’ll get any further with Republicans.”

The latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll conducted by Ed Reilly and Brent McGoldrick of FD, a communications strategy consulting firm, surveyed 1,200 adults from November 29 through December 1. It has a margin of error of +/- 2.8 percentage points.

NO TILT TOWARD GOP

Although Republicans in last month’s election achieved the biggest House gains that either party has made in a midterm since 1938, the poll found little evidence that the public now wants the GOP to seize the rudder in setting policy. Asked who should take the lead on the major issues facing the country, those surveyed divided almost evenly, with 45 percent saying President Obama and 44 percent preferring congressional Republicans. On that question, independents also split almost evenly, but the results revealed a sharp and increasingly familiar racial divide. Whites looked to congressional Republicans by a solid 53 percent to 37 percent (the result among whites without a college education tilted even more toward Republicans). Two-thirds of minorities preferred Obama for the lead role.

Similarly, there was no clear tilt toward the GOP when respondents were asked what issues should top Washington’s agenda in the coming year. Only about one in five said that the top priority should be repealing Obama’s health care overhaul; 13 percent said that Washington should focus most on extending the Bush tax cuts for all earners, including the wealthy. (Nearly twice as many Republicans picked repealing the health care law over extending the tax cuts as their top priority.)

But the most popular priorities for the coming year were to “encourage more job creation” by “providing new spending on infrastructure, research, and education” (28 percent), and to boost job growth by providing new tax cuts for business and individuals (22 percent). In Washington, the first idea has been backed almost entirely by Democrats; the second has support in both parties. Reducing the deficit by cutting spending and raising taxes—an idea that divides both parties—lagged, with just 11 percent.

One final result underscored the public’s reluctance to invest too much hope in either side. Just 25 percent of those polled said that congressional Republicans should “pursue their own agenda … including repealing the legislation and regulations enacted by President Obama and Democrats.” A resounding 70 percent said that Republicans should “compromise and work with President Obama … to get things done.” That sentiment irritated many party members such as Amie MacDonald, a nurse in Bothell, Wash., who responded to the survey. “The Republicans won,” she said. “It’s not all about compromise.” Yet even 42 percent of Republicans polled said that the party should compromise, compared with 54 percent who want the GOP to go its own way. Among independents, 70 percent preferred compromise.

OPTIMISM DEFICIT

The backdrop for the public’s bet-hedging is sustained pessimism about the country’s direction. Sometimes, elections that reshape the political landscape produce a surge of optimism—the way that brilliant sunny days often follow hurricanes. Not this time. In the poll, 60 percent of Americans said the country is still on the wrong track, compared with 62 percent who said so in August. And just 30 percent said they expected that their personal financial situation would improve over the next year, compared with 42 percent who expect it to remain the same and 25 percent who said it would deteriorate. Last January, nearly two-fifths had expected their situation to improve over the next year, while only one-fifth anticipated a decline.

Opinions about Obama’s job performance continued to demonstrate striking stability. In the latest poll, 48 percent of Americans said they approved of his performance, and 46 percent disapproved. In the four Heartland Monitor surveys since January, Obama’s approval has oscillated narrowly, between 46 and 48 percent; his disapproval has ranged between 45 and 49 percent. Each of the four polls has recorded an identical 38 percent approval rating for the president among whites. In each survey, he has received positive marks from about 40 percent or fewer of noncollege white men and women and of college-educated white men. Obama’s sole beachhead in the white electorate remains college-educated white women: 53 percent of them gave him positive marks in the new survey, up from around 45 percent in the previous three polls.

Infographic

Other questions also demonstrated more continuity than change. Asked whom they trust more to develop economic solutions, 42 percent preferred Obama, and 36 percent picked congressional Republicans. In September 2009, Obama held a 21-percentage-point advantage on that question; in the four 2010 Heartland Monitor polls, he has held advantages ranging between 5 and 8 percentage points.

Obama continues to face a slight deficit on another critical question. Thirty-five percent of those polled said that his agenda would decrease opportunity for people like them to get ahead, while 32 percent said it would increase it. (The rest said they didn’t know or it would have no impact.) Those numbers have also varied only within a very tight band all year, although the racial gap is enormous. Nonwhites, by 50 percent to 19 percent, believe that the president’s agenda is more likely to increase than diminish their opportunities. Whites, by a 42 percent to 25 percent plurality, say that his agenda will decrease their opportunities, with working-class whites, characteristically, the most dubious.

On the broadest question, Obama’s position remains positive but precarious. Just 14 percent said that the country is already “significantly better off” because of his policies; a much larger group, 37 percent, said it is already “significantly worse off.” The largest group—44 percent—say that while the president’s agenda has not yet produced significant results, it is “beginning to move [the country] in the right direction.” Obama’s margin of political hope is that about three-fourths of those in this conflicted camp still approve of his job performance.

The overall balance on the impact of Obama’s agenda has changed little from polls conducted last spring and summer, although the numbers are less favorable for the president than they were in the first 2010 Heartland Monitor survey in January. On that question, as so many others, the racial gap is a chasm. As they have since last spring, nearly half of whites (46 percent) say that Obama’s agenda has already made the country worse off, while three-fifths of nonwhites see movement in the right direction (and another fifth see progress already). Young people are also more likely to say that Obama’s agenda has already produced progress or is leading toward it.

Those sharp differentials underscore the stakes for Democrats in turning out their most supportive groups to vote in 2012—after an older and whiter electorate helped Republicans achieve a historic landslide this fall.

Scott Bland contributed contributed to this article.

This article appears in the December 12, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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