Among the questions included in the Reuters/Ipsos “Core Political Data” tracking poll is the following.
Generally speaking, would you say things in this country are heading in the right direction, or are they off on the wrong track?
The sample size is 1607 American citizens with a sampling error of plus or minus 2.8 percent. Below are the results based on the latest responses on August 18, 2016.
These results are touted nightly on cable news to explain everything from the rise of outsiders like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump to citizens’ concerns about national security, the economy and education.
I’m quite sure the survey developers, by starting with the phrase “generally speaking,” feel respondents are looking at the big picture. But what if they are wrong. What if passionate feelings about one or two issues is driving the negative feedback. Let’s take a look at how that might happen on both sides of the political spectrum, starting with the Republicans.
What are some of the reasons the 90 percent of Republicans might think the country is heading in the wrong direction?
- “I can’t believe Americans elected a foreign-born Muslim president.”
- “Obamacare is just one more example of how America is moving from capitalism to socialism.”
- “I don’t know what I get in return for all the taxes I pay.”
- “America seems to be more and more divided along racial lines.”
- “For me, marriage is reserved for one man and one woman.”
Many of the above sentiments are directly linked to policies advocated or implemented by the Obama administration and judges, many of whom Republicans view as liberal activists. So how do you explain the plurality (45 percent) of self-described Democrats being equally dissatisfied? All you need to do is consider the adverse of the reasons Republicans might have chosen the “wrong track” option.
- “I can’t believe we live in an country where so many people can’t accept the fact an African-American citizen was elected president.”
- “Obamacare is a cash cow for private health insurers. We need a public option.”
- “The wealthiest Americans do not pay their fair share of taxes.”
- “America seems to be more and more divided between the haves and have nots.”
- “There are still too many laws which discriminate against members of the LGBT community.”
I understand what the pollsters are trying to measure, and I’m not sure I could come up with a perfectly worded question which would more accurately gauge public sentiment. In 1980, Ronald Reagan presented the satisfaction question in a different way when he asked Americans, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” Political and ideological preferences might still influence one’s response. But this makes it personal (am I?), not generic (is the country?).
The clearest evidence this individual versus collective phrasing might make a huge difference is another frequently asked question on political surveys.
Do you approve or disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job?
The Gallup organization’s last poll prior to the 2014 mid-term election (taken October 29-November 2) reported only 20 percent of respondents chose “approved” while 75 percent “disapproved,” a negative differential of 55 percent. One might have expected a massive turnover. However 96.4 percent of incumbents retained their seats. In other words, even though we may collectively despise Congress, we like our individual representatives.
Which makes me wonder, “Even if the pollsters are asking the wrong questions, is there something we can learn from the responses?” In the two examples above, I better realize why I think the country is on the wrong track. For whatever reasons, opinions and voting preferences seem to be driven more by their impact on an individual than on the collective citizenry. For me, America will be on the right track (i.e. the one the forefathers laid out in the Federalist Papers) when, for example, the one percent sincerely questions the impact of lower tax rates on everyone and Social Security recipients stop demonizing those who promote an honest debate about the future of entitlements.
For what it’s worth.