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Why People Dislike Government and Why It Matters

Why People Dislike Government and Why It Matters

The long, bitter debate over the healthcare law that U.S. President Barack Obama signed last month made negative feeling about government, the report says. AP

New York Daily News via YellowBrix

April 20, 2010

WASHINGTON, DC – new Pew poll finds historic levels of unhappiness about the federal government and its role in the lives of average Americans, unrest that is at the foundation of what is shaping up to be a strongly anti-incumbent political year.

The current conditions in public opinion amount to a “perfect storm” of disgust/distrust toward government, according to Pew poll director Andy Kohut, who cites “a dismal economy, an unhappy public, bitter partisan-based backlash, and epic discontent with Congress and elected officials” as the critical factors in this building tempest.

While the report — all 140 pages of it — is chock full of great data, a few numbers stand out as typifying the current discontent coursing through the public.

  • Roughly one in five voters (22 percent) said they can trust the government in Washington always or almost always, the lowest ebb on that question in 50 years.
  • Just 38 percent said the federal government has an overall positive effect on their daily lives while 43 percent see its impact as broadly negative. Those numbers mark a considerable reversal from an October 1997 Pew poll when 50 percent said the government had a positive effect on their lives while 31 percent said it had a negative one.
  • The public blames Members of Congress more than the system itself for their malaise. A majority (52 percent) said the political system can work but Members are the problem. Roughly one in three (31 percent) blame the system, not the Members.

Those soaring levels of dissatisfaction have to worry incumbents of both parties — although the electoral pain will almost certainly be felt more by Democrats since, well, they have a lot more incumbents in the House and Senate.

More potentially problematic for Democrats is that the Pew poll also shows that the discontent toward the federal government runs far stronger among Republicans and independents and appears to be directly correlated with voter intensity.

More than eight in ten Republicans that are highly dissatisfied with the federal government told Pew they are absolutely certain to vote in the midterms while 67 percent of self identified GOPers who are less dissatisfied said it was a certainty that they would vote in the fall.

Independents, too, mirror that trend. Nearly eight in ten (78 percent) of those highly dissatisfied with the government are a lock to to vote in the fall as compared to 58 percent who are less unhappy that said the same.

(Democrats, by contrast, don’t have that sort of dissatisfaction split; 63 percent of those who are very frustrated with the government said they are certain to vote while 64 percent of those who are less frustrated said the same.)

Kohut, in typically understated fashion, concludes after a look at the numbers that “the public’s hostility toward government seems likely to be an important election issue favoring the Republicans this fall.”

All elections are about intensity and passion — and midterm elections are even more so.

Democrats saw across-the-board gains in 2006 because the party base as well as lots of Democratic-leaning independents were dead-set on sending President George W. Bush a message.

Republicans — and Republican-leaning independents, on the other hand, were significantly less energized to vote, feeling as though Bush had abandoned them on spending and size of government issues, not to mention the cloud cast by his Administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina.

The White House and congressional Democrats insisted that the best political outcome from the passage of the health care bill last month was that it re-energized what had been a very listless party base since Obama’s election in 2008.

Perhaps. But, the Pew numbers suggest that Republicans today still hold the high ground in the intensity battle heading into the fall campaign. Eliminating that edge may well be impossible — the party out of power is always more motivated to “throw the bums out” — but Democrats must find ways to mitigate it if they hope to keep their losses at historic norms (or below) in November.


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