Here’s how Andrew Kohut describes the latest findings of the Pew Research Center on public attitudes towards major U.S. institutions and their leaders, released today:
Americans express increasingly negative views of a wide range major institutions, reflecting strong discontent with national conditions. Over the past year, ratings have tumbled for the federal government and Congress. And it is not just Washington institutions that are being viewed less positively. Favorable opinions of business corporations are at their lowest point in two decades. And in the face of high energy prices, just 20% express positive opinions of oil companies.Favorable ratings for the federal government in Washington have taken a hard hit, falling from 59% last year to 45% currently. The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted among 2,006 Americans from Oct. 12-24, finds that even positive views of the military, while still very high, have slipped slightly (from 87% in March to 82%). Just two institutions are unscathed by public discontent. Ratings for the Supreme Court and the news media were unchanged compared to previous surveys.
All this bad news about public assessments of the folks running the country, and even their corporate sweethearts, should be good news for Democrats, right? Well, it’s more accurate to say that it creates an opportunity for good news for Democrats in the future. As virtually every poll has shown for some time, Pew finds that sinking assessments of the GOP have not exactly translated into rising assessments of the Donkey Party. After three months of trouble in the GOP ranks, the favorable/unfavorable ratio for the Republican Party has dropped from 48/43 in July to 42/49 today. The Democratic Party’s ratio has changed from 50-41 to 49-41 over the same period.This should be a familiar anomaly for Democrats, since it was a central feature of the 2004 presidential cycle. All year long, Kerry strategists (and for that matter, people like me) stared at the stubbornly high “wrong track” numbers and became convinced that eventually all these unhappy campers would drift into the challenger’s column, giving the Democratic candidate a sure boost in the home stretch. And indeed, this belief clearly had an impact on the Kerry campaign message; anodyne slogans like “New Directions for America” and “A Stronger America” were basically just welcome signs for the “wrong track” voters sure to abandon Bush if given a clear alternative.It didn’t happen, probably in part because voters viewed Democrats as much as if not more than Republicans as the “wrong track” party on some issues, including culture, integrity, and “big government,” and because Democrats never offered a tightly constructed argument about exactly how they would do a better job on the most important concerns of wavering voters.We’re at a similar juncture today, except that (1) Republican vulnerability is much greater than in 2004, and (2) Democrats don’t have the focal point of a presidential candidacy to drive home a clear and compelling message.The Democratic ability to overcome this second obstacle will go a long way towards determining whether 2006 is one of those snarling, low-turnout, plague-on-both-houses elections with mixed results, or a 1994-style wave that sweeps Republicans out of office.We now have just over a year to paint some bright and unmistakable signposts that remind voters exactly who built the wrong track this country is on, and point to the path not taken that’s still available with new leadership.