A February 2018 Gallup Poll revealed that a plurality of respondents cited “dissatisfaction with government/poor leadership” as the most important problem currently facing the United States. More than one-fifth of respondents (22%) identified this issue as the nation’s biggest problem. This finding is remarkable. The nation continues to enjoy an economic expansion that now ranks as the second longest on record. Its unemployment rate that has been below 5% for 19 consecutive months and has just fallen under 4% for the first time since December 2000.
This dissatisfaction with government is higher than it was preceding the last mid-term election in 2014. Then, 18% of those surveyed identified dissatisfaction with government as their top priority. Poor leadership wasn’t even a factor.
In 2014, concern about the fragility of the ongoing economic recovery persisted. At the time the poll was taken in September 2014, real economic growth had averaged 2.1% over four years with some large quarterly and annual fluctuations. As a result, 17% of respondents cited the economy in general as the biggest problem confronting the United States. Over the past four years, the average real growth rate had risen to 2.5%. Public confidence in the economy had solidified. As a result, economic worries were not a factor in the most recent poll.
When the poll was taken in 2014, the unemployment rate had averaged 6.5% over 12 months. Then, 12% of those surveyed cited unemployment/jobs as the biggest problem facing the country. In February 2018, the 12-month average unemployment rate had fallen to 4.2%. Unemployment/jobs was not cited as a problem in the most recent polling data.
The current dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in Washington more likely stems from concerns about leadership quality and governance performance than had been the case in 2014. Unlike in 2014, the need to unify the country (6% of respondents) and a “lack of respect for one another” (3% of respondents) were identified as the nation’s top problems.
This new data may hint that the nation’s electorate is poised to express a broad vote of “no confidence” in the President and his governing Republican Party in November. In general, when the economy is strong and the unemployment rate is low, voters tend to be risk-averse. They seek to maintain continuity. They want to avoid political changes that could disrupt an economy that is generating rising incomes, expanding job and career opportunities, and producing widespread satisfaction with one’s own condition. For voters to set aside their risk aversion, they must either believe that the economy is weakening or about to do so or they must conclude that some other situation has created a need to override their typical preference for continuity. The latest measures of U.S. business and consumer confidence remain high, leaving only the latter explanation plausible.
For context, rarely has the U.S. experienced such a prolonged bout of polarized governance coupled with deeply divisive rhetoric aimed at political opponents, institutions such as law enforcement and the National Intelligence Community, and the news media, as it has during the past 15 months. Given this context, there is a likelihood that the electorate will go to the polls on November 6 having concluded that (1) the President/Republican Party has generally provided poor leadership; (2) the President/Republican Party are mainly responsible for creating the need to reunify the country; and, (3) the President/Republican Party—evidenced by the President’s prolific use of Twitter as a platform for launching his attacks on political leaders, governing institutions, and the news media—are largely responsible for the current “lack of respect for one another.” The result could be a “wave election” that smashes the current balance of political power in Washington.
During such elections, the electorate puts broad institutional/civil society concerns ahead of typical policy positions that sustain partisan loyalty. This development can produce changes in political control when the wave breaks against a governing party. The 1976 post-Watergate Scandal wave election saw Democrats add to their House majority by picking up an additional 48 seats. The 1994 and 2010 wave elections saw Republicans gain 54 and 64 seats respectively and, in both cases, gain control of the House of Representatives.
Contrary to prevailing political myth, there remains much that unifies Americans. For example, a Morning Consult poll taken during the January-March 2018 period found that more than three-quarters of Americans expressed net favorable perceptions for brands such as Amazon, Google, and Hershey’s. The existence of that strong consensus over brands argues that the cause of the dissatisfaction with government is more likely a political problem than a wider societal one. If so, a political reckoning could lie ahead.