Heartland Monitor Poll

Broken Beyond Repair?

New Heartland Monitor poll shows little hope for political compromise or action to help average Americans.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Nov. 14, 2014, 2:10 a.m.

Far more Amer­ic­ans be­lieve the coun­try would be­ne­fit from great­er com­prom­ise between Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats than from either party amass­ing uni­fied con­trol of the White House and Con­gress, the latest All­state/Na­tion­al Journ­al Heart­land Mon­it­or has found.

But, across party lines, few Amer­ic­ans ex­pect such co­oper­a­tion to in­crease after a bruis­ing elec­tion that left Re­pub­lic­ans hold­ing both con­gres­sion­al cham­bers for Pres­id­ent Obama’s fi­nal two years.

The sur­vey, con­duc­ted in late Oc­to­ber just be­fore the GOP’s elect­or­al sweep, found that even among Amer­ic­ans who iden­ti­fied with either party, only a minor­ity be­lieved that uni­fied con­trol by their side would “make life a lot bet­ter” for people like them.

Only about two-fifths of self-iden­ti­fied Re­pub­lic­ans said that uni­fied con­trol of the White House, House, and Sen­ate by their party would sig­ni­fic­antly im­prove life for people like them; al­most ex­actly the same share of Demo­crats agreed. Among in­de­pend­ents only one in nine thought uni­fied Demo­crat­ic con­trol would be­ne­fit them “a lot”; only one in 20 in­de­pend­ents thought the same about uni­fied Re­pub­lic­an con­trol.

Amer­ic­ans were much more likely to say their lives would be­ne­fit from “Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans com­prom­ising more to solve prob­lems in Wash­ing­ton.” Just over half of those sur­veyed though such co­oper­a­tion would make life a lot bet­ter for people like them. Brynn Lob­ato, a Farm­ing­ton, N.M., home­maker who did not identi­fy her party al­le­gi­ance was among them. “It doesn’t really mat­ter if it’s Demo­crats or Re­pub­lic­ans [con­trolling Con­gress],” she said in an in­ter­view after the GOP takeover. “We just need to work to­geth­er, peri­od. We just have to work to­geth­er and find out what is work­ing and what isn’t work­ing and tap on the strengths and move for­ward with those. I hope they’ll be able to do good, pos­it­ive things for our na­tion.”

The be­lief that more co­oper­a­tion could pro­duce great­er be­ne­fits united groups that of­ten di­verge on polit­ic­al ques­tions, in­clud­ing 53 per­cent of whites, 58 per­cent of non­whites, 66 per­cent of Demo­crats, and 53 per­cent of in­de­pend­ents. The big ex­cep­tion: Just 42 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­an par­tis­ans said they thought they would be­ne­fit much from more com­prom­ise—a re­flec­tion both of the res­ist­ance to Obama and the de­mands for ideo­lo­gic­al pur­ity among many GOP act­iv­ists.

The res­ults were part of the 21st All­state/Na­tion­al Journ­al Heart­land Mon­it­or Poll. Na­tion­al Journ­al and The At­lantic are re­leas­ing the poll’s find­ings over the next week.

Wheth­er they fa­vor or fear com­prom­ise in Wash­ing­ton, few Amer­ic­ans are ex­pect­ing to see more of it. Just 13 per­cent of those sur­veyed said they be­lieved that “as a res­ult of [the] elec­tion, Con­gress and the pres­id­ent” will co­oper­ate more than be­fore to get things done. A slightly lar­ger 21 per­cent thought the pres­id­ent and Con­gress would work to­geth­er less, while ex­actly three-fifths ex­pec­ted no change in the cur­rent level of co­oper­a­tion.

Few things more united Amer­ic­ans than the ex­pect­a­tion that their rep­res­ent­at­ives won’t come to­geth­er in Wash­ing­ton: only 19 per­cent of Demo­crats, 11 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans, and 10 per­cent of in­de­pend­ents said they ex­pec­ted more co­oper­a­tion along Pennsylvania Av­en­ue after the elec­tion. Anna Fox of Chester, Md., a polit­ic­al in­de­pend­ent and co-own­er of a tree-re­mov­al ser­vice, cap­tured the very cau­tious op­tim­ism that ran through many con­ver­sa­tions with poll re­spond­ents. “I like to think it can’t get any worse,” she said, also in an in­ter­view after Sen­ate con­trol flipped. “These are tough times right now. I’m feel­ing good that things will move in a dif­fer­ent dir­ec­tion—if people do what they say they are go­ing to do.”

More of those sur­veyed looked out­side the polit­ic­al sys­tem for changes that might im­prove their lives. The poll offered re­spond­ents a list of sev­en pos­sible sys­tem­ic changes in Amer­ic­an life that might be­ne­fit people like them (in­clud­ing uni­fied party con­trol in Wash­ing­ton or great­er bi­par­tis­an co­oper­a­tion). Two op­tions clearly topped the list: 62 per­cent said “U.S. com­pan­ies in­vest­ing more money in Amer­ica and hir­ing more Amer­ic­ans” would make life a lot bet­ter for people like them. Sixty per­cent said the same about “more Amer­ic­ans tak­ing the re­spons­ib­il­ity to work hard, im­prove their skills and edu­ca­tion, and provide for their fam­il­ies.”

Lob­ato was one of many who placed more weight on busi­ness than gov­ern­ment de­cisions. “We need to keep jobs here,” she said. “I don’t think we need to be ship­ping them over­seas. We need to build our own na­tion up, in­stead of find­ing cheap­er labor else­where in oth­er coun­tries. I think that’s one of the biggest prob­lems that we have. People are will­ing to work.”

More com­prom­ise between the parties ranked third (54 per­cent a lot bet­ter), fol­lowed by great­er vol­un­tar­ism from av­er­age Amer­ic­ans (36 per­cent), and more sup­port from U.S. com­pan­ies for com­munity groups and char­it­able or­gan­iz­a­tions (30 per­cent); uni­fied polit­ic­al con­trol for Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans fin­ished last.

The sur­vey found a broad con­sensus on the value of great­er re­spons­ib­il­ity from both em­ploy­ers and in­di­vidu­als. Ex­actly the same 60 per­cent of both whites and non­whites said great­er in­di­vidu­al re­spons­ib­il­ity would be­ne­fit people like them a lot; al­most ex­actly three-fifths of Re­pub­lic­ans, in­de­pend­ents, and Demo­crats con­curred as well. Whites and non­whites were also al­most equally likely to see be­ne­fits in great­er do­mest­ic in­vest­ment from U.S. com­pan­ies-and Re­pub­lic­ans (at 67 per­cent) were ac­tu­ally slightly more likely than Demo­crats or in­de­pend­ents (63 per­cent and 59 per­cent re­spect­ively) to view that as a ma­jor be­ne­fit.

That con­ver­gence, not sur­pris­ingly, quickly dis­solved on ques­tions meas­ur­ing Obama’s per­form­ance and agenda. Just 41 per­cent of those sur­veyed said they ap­proved of his job per­form­ance, with 49 per­cent dis­ap­prov­ing. Obama’s ap­prov­al rat­ing has var­ied little in the past four Heart­land Mon­it­or sur­veys dat­ing back to Septem­ber 2013, though his dis­ap­prov­al rat­ing has mod­er­ated some­what from its 55 per­cent level last Novem­ber.

Irene Be­lozer­sky, a so­cial work­er and a Demo­crat in Brook­line, Mass., who re­spon­ded to the sur­vey said Amer­ic­ans frus­trated about the eco­nomy are un­fairly blam­ing Obama for glob­al changes no pres­id­ent can con­trol. “I don’t think one lead­er or group of lead­ers can change that much,” she said. “I think the laws which gov­ern eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment in the world right now are too com­plex for one per­son.” Obama’s health re­form law, she says, is provid­ing “tre­mend­ously im­port­ant” be­ne­fits to the low-in­come fam­il­ies she works with. But Robert Shew, a broad­band tech­ni­cian in Wilkes­boro, N.C., be­lieves the pres­id­ent’s agenda is com­pound­ing the coun­try’s prob­lems. “Obama is sup­posed to cre­ate jobs; we have less jobs,” says Shew, an in­de­pend­ent. “He’s sup­posed to help all these people with Obama­care, but that’s hurt­ing my health care, it’s hurt­ing oth­er people’s health care. It’s hurt­ing busi­ness.”

Among whites—who again de­cis­ively pre­ferred Re­pub­lic­ans in last month’s elec­tion—just 34 per­cent ap­proved of Obama’s per­form­ance, while nearly three-fifths dis­ap­proved. Among minor­it­ies, the num­bers were vir­tu­ally re­versed, with al­most three-fifths ap­prov­ing and about three in 10 dis­ap­prov­ing. Obama re­ceived pos­it­ive marks from only about half of His­pan­ics, though, as well as few­er than three in 10 whites without a col­lege de­gree, and only about two-fifths of col­lege-edu­cated whites.

Obama saw only slight im­prove­ment on an­oth­er long-term trend ques­tion. Just 25 per­cent of those sur­veyed said they be­lieved his agenda would in­crease op­por­tun­ity for people like them to get ahead. That num­ber, which peaked at 40 per­cent the first time the Heart­land Mon­it­or asked the ques­tion in Ju­ly 2009, has changed little since Septem­ber 2013. But the share who said Obama’s agenda is di­min­ish­ing their op­por­tun­it­ies dropped in the latest sur­vey to 37 per­cent, from 46 per­cent last spring. The pro­por­tion that said he’s hav­ing no im­pact on their pro­spects in­creased from about one-fourth last spring to one-third now. Non­whites (at around two-fifths) re­main twice as likely as whites (one-fifth) to say Obama’s policies are im­prov­ing their pro­spects; but the share of whites who said his agenda is ac­tu­ally re­du­cing their chances dropped 10 per­cent­age points since April, with the dif­fer­ence al­most en­tirely shift­ing to­ward say­ing he was hav­ing no ef­fect.

That tracks the very mod­est thaw evid­ent on oth­er ques­tions of eco­nom­ic health. The 44 per­cent who said their fin­ances today are ex­cel­lent or good was un­changed from polls in Septem­ber and Novem­ber 2013; the 55 per­cent who de­scribed their fin­ances as only fair or poor was stat­ist­ic­ally un­changed from those sur­veys too. Skep­ti­cism re­mained wide­spread about the real be­ne­fits of the un­em­ploy­ment rate’s steady de­cline over re­cent months. “There’s a lot of talk of jobs be­ing cre­ated, but the real­ity is, most of those jobs are un­der­em­ploy­ment,” said Mar­tin Tozer of El­lens­burg, Wash., who was re­cently laid off from his job as a whole­sale dis­tri­bu­tion man­ager and does not identi­fy with either party. “The real­ity i, the jobs are part-time, the jobs are low-wage, they are not ca­reer jobs. There have been no ca­reer jobs that have been cre­ated, es­sen­tially, in the last six years.”

Look­ing for­ward, though, the sur­vey cap­tured a very slight de­cline—al­beit still with­in the mar­gin of er­ror—in the share of Amer­ic­ans who ex­pect their fin­ances to de­teri­or­ate over the next year, and a cor­res­pond­ing in­crease in the share who ex­pect it to re­main the same. Still, only about two in five Amer­ic­ans say they ex­pect to gain ground over the next 12 months, with about one in nine ex­pect­ing to lose it, and just un­der half be­liev­ing they will re­main in place. Minor­it­ies ex­press con­sid­er­ably more op­tim­ism than whites.

Con­sensus re­turns on a fi­nal meas­ure, though around a pro­foundly neg­at­ive judg­ment. Just 9 per­cent of those sur­veyed said they ap­proved of Con­gress’s job per­form­ance, while 80 per­cent dis­ap­proved. That tied the low­est con­gres­sion­al ap­prov­al rat­ing the Heart­land Poll has ever re­cor­ded, and it united Amer­ic­ans of all par­tis­an pro­cliv­it­ies: only 10 per­cent of in­de­pend­ents, 9 per­cent of Demo­crats and 8 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans gave Con­gress a pos­it­ive grade in the sur­vey. A uni­fied Re­pub­lic­an Con­gress now has the op­por­tun­it—and the ne­ces­sity—to demon­strate it can im­prove on that dis­mal ver­dict.

The latest All­state/Na­tion­al Journ­al Heart­land Mon­it­or Poll is the 21st in a series ex­amin­ing how Amer­ic­ans are ex­per­i­en­cing the chan­ging eco­nomy. This poll, which ex­plored how Amer­ic­ans rate their pro­gress at nav­ig­at­ing their ob­lig­a­tions at work, home, and their com­munity, sur­veyed 1,000 adults by land­line and cell phones Oc­to­ber 22-26. The sur­vey was su­per­vised by Ed Re­illy, Jeremy Ruch, and Jocelyn Land­au of FTI Con­sult­ing’s Stra­tegic Com­mu­nic­a­tions prac­tice.

Janie Boschma contributed to this article.
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