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How Angry Is the American Voter, Really?

PROMINENT reporter for a large national daily told me a few weeks ago of his frustration over the media's handling of what has become the big story of Campaign '92 - "The Angry American Voter." He related a conversation he had with a fellow journalist employed by a major California paper.

The reporter had been assigned to write a big piece on the rebellious mood among California voters, as part of his paper's coverage of the state's June 9 primary. He had personally interviewed a couple score of rank-and-file state residents, and had then filed his account. Upon reading the piece, his editor told him that he must interview more people - because those he had reached so far weren't really angry!

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How did the editor "know" that Californians were in fact "mad as hell," and that his reporter had blown it by locating a group of interviewees who somehow didn't fit the prevailing pattern? I don't know, of course, but he might fairly claim that the polls told him so. Many survey analysts have made this argument in recent months. They cite findings such as those of a June Gallup survey in which only 14 percent of respondents said they were satisfied "with the way things are going in the United States at this time," the second lowest proportion recorded in more than 40 askings of the question over the last 13 years.

Now, there's no debate over the fact that questions asking people whether they like the way things are going in the nation have been getting negative responses of late. At doubt are the sources and significance of these findings. I would insist that the type of question cited is by itself wholly incapable of telling us what we need to know because it measures only the direction of opinion and ignores the more politically important element of its intensity.

Imagine a scale in which every expression of direction in opinion - satisfied or dissatisfied - is further located as to the strength of the assessment, from 0 to 100. Who would claim that a situation in which 70 percent of the public say they are dissatisfied, with an average intensity of 7, is anything comparable to one where 70 percent are dissatisfied, with an average rating of 87? The former would mean the lightest of moods, easily swept away by a modest dose of good news. The latter would mean syst em-shaking anger. We don't have such a precise measure, of course. But I would argue that the composite of available information suggests that the nation as a whole is far closer to the hypothetical average of 7 than to 87.

The extreme volatility of response to the "satisfied/dissatisfied" questions supports my argument. Many of these questions recorded near-record highs of satisfaction in the spring of 1991, and near-record lows this spring. For example, 66 percent of those interviewed by Gallup in March 1991 said they were satisfied with the way things were going nationally, the highest figure ever recorded. The proportion satisfied fell precipitously to just 14 percent last month.

The end of the Gulf war was dominating headlines in the spring of last year, of course. But that aside, little has changed in the nation's position, and much of what has changed is for the better. For example, the security of the US internationally has been enhanced; changes in the policies of our former adversaries have on the whole been to our liking. On the domestic side, no one questions that the US economy has strengthened from the recession-low of spring 1991. When, against this backdrop, a series of measures purport to show a swing from great optimism to bleak pessimism, they must be tapping something pretty close to the surface.

Let's put aside, for a moment, the notion that "people are really angry" and consider another interpretation of the nation's mood. In this view, Americans have a decidedly mixed assessment of overall conditions. They see bright spots and areas of concern. The economy, which went roughly two years without real growth overall has been the most important concern; its performance clearly weakened the incumbent president's political position.

At the same time the Democrats - normal beneficiaries of such concerns - have failed to capitalize. Confidence in their capacity to lead the nation hasn't recovered from a 15-year decline, and the party's apparent l992 presidential nominee has shown major weaknesses.

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In this setting, millions of voters have, in effect, told pollsters, "I'm still shopping." For a time candidates Pat Buchanan, Paul Tsongas, and Jerry Brown attracted voters' attention; in the last few months, Ross Perot has.

The electorate at large will have the final say on Nov. 3. But my reading of what it has been saying is that, while far from euphoric about the nation's direction, it is equally far from being rebellious and angry. It's still in a mood for straight talk and sober assessment.