What Are Voters Thinking?

The Washington Post has a new poll out: The top-line is that things are bad for Democrats thanks to the toll a tough economy is taking on public optimism; conservatives are also more enthusiastic about this election than liberals. Surprised? If you're a TAPPED reader, I hope not. But there is some more interesting stuff underneath the trend we've been watching for months and months. Beyond the electoral implications, it's worth looking at how voters feel about specific issues before drawing broad conclusions about the public's political beliefs from their anger at incumbents.

One question the poll asked that ought to have been reworded: "Do you think the [X party] are or are not offering the country a clear direction that's different from the [Y Party]?" For both Republicans and Democrats, half the respondents said no. But does that mean that half the public sees no difference between the two parties' agendas? Or that they don't think the agendas are clear? Or some mix of the two? In any event, if half of voters are unable to discern a difference between the two parties, for whatever reason, it will be hard to view this election as giving anyone a mandate to govern -- but that also means that Democrats are not doing enough to emphasize the contrast between the two parties that they believe will give them an advantage over the Republicans.

More on mandates: Interestingly, 60 percent of Americans blame the Bush administration for the economy; 42 percent blame President Obama for not doing enough to turn it around. The two numbers are trending in opposite directions, suggesting that the public may want the president to do more  -- perhaps something the administration believes as well given this weekend's surprise proposal of new infrastructure investment from the president. 

Other results from this poll also suggest that this election won't be an endorsement of Republican policy preferences: 45 percent of respondents have an unfavorable view of the Tea Party, while only 38 have a favorable view. Sixty-two percent of Americans think the war in Iraq was not worth fighting (46 percent strongly) while 34 percent think it was. And, as Kevin Drum notes, voters also identify more with Democrats despite their broader unhappiness with the direction of the country.

Indeed, besides the driving factor of the economy, one of the most telling notes in the poll is that 55 percent of voters think Republicans should be in charge of Congress because there is a Democratic president; those numbers were reversed in 2002 when President Bush was in office. The synergy between economic woes and the idea of divided government seems to be driving the Republican advantage, not concern over the Democrats' agenda.

-- Tim Fernholz

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