NEWSWEEK Poll: Anger Unlikely to Be Deciding Factor in Midterms

poll-anger-voters-artlead
Getty Images

Anger is dominating the current political conversation—especially if you're an older, whiter, economically anxious voter who dislikes President Barack Obama and tends to prefer Republicans to Democrats. But according to the new NEWSWEEK Poll, there's little reason to believe that anger alone will be the determining factor in November's midterm elections.

Self-described "angry" voters fit a rather predictable political and demographic profile. The survey found that only 14 percent are Democrats. The rest are either Republicans (52 percent) or independents (29 percent), with 42 percent of the angry voters declaring themselves Tea Party supporters. For the midterms, angry voters favor Republican candidates over their Democratic rivals, 73 percent to 19 percent. Three quarters want the GOP to win control of Congress. More than seven in 10 specifically describe themselves as angry with Obama and congressional Democrats, and a full 60 percent see their vote in November as a vote against the president. Compared with voters in general, angry voters are 21 percent more likely to say they're worried about their economic future. They are 10 percent whiter than voters in general and 7 percent less likely to be under 30.

But the NEWSWEEK Poll's most revealing finding is that despite months of media coverage insisting that voters are "mad as hell and not going to take it anymore," anger is unlikely to decide this year's elections. For starters, self-described angry voters constitute only 23 percent of the electorate, and there's no reason to believe that they're more likely to cast ballots in November than their calmer peers. Why? Because the percentage of angry voters who say they will definitely vote in the midterms is statistically indistinguishable from the overall percentage of voters who say the same thing (84 percent vs. 81 percent). In fact, majorities of voters say they would not be more likely to vote for candidates who express anger at Washington incumbents (60 percent), Wall Street bankers (52 percent), the illegal-immigration problem (53 percent), the Gulf of Mexico oil spill (65 percent), or health-care reform (55 percent).  Fifty-three percent of voters see Obama's unemotional approach to politics—his "coolness"—as a positive, versus only 39 percent who don't.

Anger isn't the only factor that's been overhyped in the run-up to Election Day. The president, for example, appears to be a neutral force rather than a negative one. His approval rating stands at 48 percent, roughly where it has remained since January of this year, and far better than where George W. Bush stood before the 2006 midterms (33 percent) or where Bill Clinton stood in 1994 (36 percent). Meanwhile, the percentage of voters who say they will be voting "for Obama" in November's congressional elections (32 percent) is statistically identical to the percentage who say they will be voting "against" him (30 percent). Voters dissatisfied with the country's current course are more likely to place "a lot" of blame on Bush (39 percent) than on his successor (32 percent).

Another factor that has garnered a lot of potentially unwarranted attention is "the issues." Simply put, in the NEWSWEEK Poll, voters said they trust Democrats more than Republicans to handle pretty much every problem currently facing the country: Afghanistan (by 6 points), health care (by 12), immigration (by 2, though that figure is within the margin of error), Social Security (by 14), unemployment (by 12), financial reform (by 14), energy (by 19), and education (by 19). Voters even prefer Democrats to Republicans on federal spending (by 4 points), taxes (by 5), and the economy (by 10)—the GOP's core concerns. The only area where Republicans outpoll Democrats is the issue of terrorism, where they lead by a 6-point margin.

Still, voters are split on which party should control Congress after November—44 percent went for Republicans, 46 percent for Democrats—and most experts are predicting sizable Republican gains in both the House and the Senate. So if not anger, the president, or the issues, what will be the deciding factor in the 2010 midterm elections? According to the NEWSWEEK Poll, the condition of the economy, and the inability of anyone in Washington to improve it, is by far the most important force at play in this year's congressional campaigns.

Compare 2010 with 1994, the last year a new Democratic president lost control of Congress to the GOP. While the overall percentage of Americans who now say they are dissatisfied with the country's direction (68 percent) is slightly lower than the percentage recorded in August 1994 (71 percent), the economy is a much stronger source of discontent than it was 16 years ago. In 1994, for example, only 52 percent of voters named "economic conditions in general" as a primary reason for their unhappiness. Today, that percentage has shot up to 75 percent. In 1994, 45 percent cited "not enough good-paying jobs" as a major factor. Today, the number has climbed to 56 percent. (Social issues, meanwhile, have lost much of their impact: only 41 percent of dissatisfied voters now complain about "low moral and ethical standards," versus 59 percent in 1994.)

As a result, voters are desperate for greater economic security, and willing to try something new to achieve it. With 59 percent assigning "a lot" of blame to Congress as a whole—and 42 percent placing that blame on congressional Democrats, compared with only 30 percent for congressional Republicans—it's only natural that Democrats are likely to be the ones losing seats in November.

This poll was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International on September 29-30, 2010. Telephone interviews were conducted with a nationally representative sample of 1,025 adults, 18 years and over, including 691 adults reached on a landline telephone and 334 adults reached on a cell phone. Results use a two-stage weighting procedure: (1) to correct for different probabilities of selection associated with the number of adults in each respondent’s household and their household telephone usage patterns; and (2) to adjust the sample demographics to Census Current Population Survey parameters for gender, age, education, race, region, and population density. The overall margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.8 percentage points for results based on 1,025 adults. Results based on smaller subgroups are subject to larger margins of sampling error.

Join the Discussion