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Our American Chasm

by Ronald Brownstein   |   January 28, 2016

Close di­vi­sions over Pres­id­ent Obama’s re­cord and a con­tin­ued anxi­ety over the pace of the eco­nomy’s re­cov­ery point to­ward a volat­ile and po­lar­ized 2016 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, the latest All­state/Na­tion­al Journ­al Heart­land Mon­it­or sug­gests.

Des­pite months of steady job growth, the sur­vey finds most Amer­ic­ans gloomy about the tra­ject­ory of the na­tion­al eco­nomy and split closely over pro­spects for their own fin­ances. Re­spond­ents di­vide al­most ex­actly in half over Obama’s im­pact on the eco­nomy as well as his over­all job per­form­ance, with each ques­tion sep­ar­at­ing Amer­ic­ans along deeply etched grooves of race, age, and party al­le­gi­ance.

Cu­mu­lat­ively, the res­ults cap­ture the dur­ab­il­ity of the di­vi­sions that now define Amer­ic­an polit­ics and the pre­cari­ous bal­ance between Re­pub­lic­an and Demo­crat­ic co­ali­tions that are an­ti­thet­ic­al in their demo­graph­ic and geo­graph­ic com­pos­i­tion yet al­most ex­actly equal in strength. The res­ults also show the con­tend­ing forces that are likely to col­lide, like tec­ton­ic plates, to shape the 2016 com­pet­i­tion. A sus­tained dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the eco­nomy—and more broadly, with the coun­try’s dir­ec­tion—will boost Re­pub­lic­ans, even as con­tin­ued strength among demo­graph­ic groups that are ex­pand­ing with­in the elect­or­ate will bol­ster Demo­crats.

In a meas­ure of how nar­rowly bal­anced these com­pet­ing forces have left the coun­try, re­spond­ents split ex­actly in half on Obama’s job per­form­ance—47 per­cent ap­prove, 47 per­cent dis­ap­prove. This placed Obama well above George W. Bush in most sur­veys at this point in his second term, but be­hind Ron­ald Re­agan and Bill Clin­ton.

This latest Heart­land Mon­it­or Poll marks the 25th sur­vey in the series, which began in April 2009. For this poll, we have re­prised some of the most im­port­ant ques­tions asked earli­er, mostly from the sur­vey’s first two years, to doc­u­ment how Amer­ic­an at­ti­tudes have changed, or haven’t, since the depths of the Great Re­ces­sion in 2008 and 2009.

For Demo­crats hop­ing to keep con­trol of the White House, un­ease with the coun­try’s dir­ec­tion and with the pace of eco­nom­ic re­cov­ery rep­res­ents the sur­vey’s most omin­ous find­ing. On the broad­est ques­tion, just 25 per­cent of those sur­veyed said they be­lieve the coun­try is headed in the right dir­ec­tion, while 62 per­cent said it’s on the wrong track. In the 10 Heart­land Mon­it­or polls dur­ing Obama’s second term, only twice has even 30 per­cent of adults said the coun­try was on the right track.

Like­wise, the ver­dict on the state of the na­tion­al eco­nomy is still down­beat. Just 21 per­cent of those sur­veyed de­scribed the eco­nomy as ex­cel­lent or good, while 78 per­cent called it fair or poor. Those num­bers have barely budged in a year, al­though by most meas­ures the eco­nomy has im­proved. Demo­crats (at 39 per­cent) are con­sid­er­ably more likely than in­de­pend­ents (16 per­cent) or Re­pub­lic­ans (just 12 per­cent) to give the eco­nomy an ex­cel­lent or good grade; yet fully 61 per­cent of Demo­crats rate it as only fair or poor.

The poll’s re­spond­ents were only slightly more op­tim­ist­ic about the eco­nomy’s fu­ture course. Only 27 per­cent said they ex­pect it to get bet­ter over the next year, while 24 per­cent ex­pect it to de­teri­or­ate. (Forty-four per­cent ex­pect no change.) Since Septem­ber 2013, the pro­por­tion of adults who’ve ex­pec­ted the eco­nomy to im­prove over the next year has var­ied only between that low of 27 per­cent and a high of 32 per­cent.

Amer­ic­ans of­fer far more bullish, though still equi­voc­al, as­sess­ments of their per­son­al fin­ances—45 per­cent of those polled de­scribed their fin­an­cial situ­ation as ex­cel­lent or good, while 54 per­cent termed it fair or poor. Those num­bers have var­ied little in re­cent years; since Septem­ber 2013, pos­it­ive re­sponses to this ques­tion have ranged from 42 per­cent to a high of 45 per­cent in the latest poll. On this ques­tion, whites (at 48 per­cent) are much more likely than non­whites (at 35 per­cent) to say their fin­ances are ex­cel­lent or good.

Sev­er­al oth­er ques­tions in the sur­vey filled out the pic­ture of an eco­nomy that has left many fam­il­ies feel­ing as if they’re liv­ing on the edge.

The most pos­it­ive find­ing was that 37 per­cent of re­spond­ents agreed they “can live com­fort­ably and save an ad­equate amount for re­tire­ment or oth­er needs.” That is 10 per­cent­age points high­er than in Ju­ly 2009, in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of the Great Re­ces­sion. The share that said they “find it hard to make ends meet every month” has de­clined from 22 per­cent to 15 per­cent since 2009. Even so, about half of those sur­veyed (46 per­cent now, com­pared to 50 per­cent in 2009) still said, “I can get by every month, but I find it dif­fi­cult to save and in­vest, wheth­er for re­tire­ment or oth­er pur­poses.”

On a sep­ar­ate meas­ure, 45 per­cent de­scribed their per­son­al fin­an­cial situ­ation as ex­cel­lent or good, while 54 per­cent termed it only fair or poor. Those lackluster num­bers have dis­played re­mark­able sta­bil­ity: Since Septem­ber 2013, the per­cent­age term­ing their fin­ances fair or poor has var­ied only between 54 per­cent and 56 per­cent, a shift well with­in the sur­vey’s mar­gin of er­ror.

Oth­er meas­ures track even less pro­gress since the depths of the down­turn. The new sur­vey found vir­tu­ally no im­prove­ment since April 2009 in the frac­tion of adults who said they are con­fid­ent they won’t lose their job or suf­fer a sig­ni­fic­ant dip in in­come dur­ing the next five years. In the latest poll, 71 per­cent of re­spond­ents said they are con­fid­ent that their in­come will re­main stable for the next five years, while 26 per­cent aren’t—both num­bers al­most un­changed from 2009 (when 72 per­cent were con­fid­ent and 25 per­cent were not). Just as start­ling, the new poll also re­gistered a de­cline in the share of adults who say they have suf­fi­cient fin­an­cial as­sets “to provide a reas­on­able cush­ion of se­cur­ity for your­self and your fam­ily if you were to ex­per­i­ence a job loss or sig­ni­fic­ant de­crease in your in­come.” In April 2009, 59 per­cent said they were con­fid­ent they had enough saved to weath­er such a set­back, while 38 per­cent wer­en’t. Now, just 51 per­cent ex­press con­fid­ence, and 46 per­cent don’t. On this ques­tion, a far high­er per­cent­age of col­lege-edu­cated whites (about two-thirds) ex­press con­fid­ence than do either minor­it­ies or whites without a col­lege de­gree (in both cases, just over two-fifths).

Strik­ingly, the sur­vey also found vir­tu­ally no im­prove­ment since Janu­ary 2010 in the per­cent­age of adults who ex­per­i­enced any of sev­er­al ser­i­ous fin­an­cial strains dur­ing the past year. In re­port­ing their troubles, nearly half of those sur­veyed ex­per­i­enced “sig­ni­fic­ant re­duc­tions in spend­ing, in­clud­ing put­ting off ma­jor pur­chases”; about a third with­drew money “from sav­ings or pen­sion funds to make ends meet”; nearly a third had “lost a job or been un­em­ployed for a sus­tained peri­od”; about three in 10 had “re­duced con­tri­bu­tions to a 401(k) or oth­er … re­tire­ment fund”; about one in four had “gone without health in­sur­ance for a sus­tained peri­od”; and about one in six had “fallen be­hind on pay­ing [their] mort­gage or rent.” These num­bers have hardly changed in the past six years. This time, in a new ques­tion, 41 per­cent of re­spond­ents said they had stayed in a job longer, even though they didn’t like it, be­cause they feared not find­ing an­oth­er.

Polit­ic­al sci­ent­ists of­ten say elec­tions are shaped more by ex­pect­a­tions about the fu­ture than by as­sess­ments of the present. And on that front, the Heart­land Mon­it­or again finds Amer­ic­ans closely di­vided over wheth­er they ex­pect to gain ground in the months ahead—or just to hold their ground. Forty-two per­cent of those sur­veyed said they ex­pect their fin­an­cial situ­ation to im­prove over the next year, while 46 per­cent ex­pect it to re­main the same. Just 9 per­cent ex­pect it to de­teri­or­ate. These num­bers again have var­ied re­l­at­ively little dur­ing Obama’s second term: since June 2013, those ex­pect­ing im­prove­ment have var­ied only between 38 per­cent and 47 per­cent.

But this ques­tion does ex­pose more of the par­tis­an di­vides that are likely to define the 2016 race. Sev­er­al cru­cial ele­ments of the Demo­crat­ic co­ali­tion are far more op­tim­ist­ic than groups that lean Re­pub­lic­an. While 69 per­cent of Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans and 53 per­cent of His­pan­ics said they ex­pect their fin­ances to im­prove, just 35 per­cent of whites agreed. Sim­il­arly, mem­bers of the mil­len­ni­al gen­er­a­tion (62 per­cent are op­tim­ist­ic) were far more likely to ex­press op­tim­ism that mem­bers of Gen­er­a­tion X (45 per­cent), much less baby boomers (only 31 per­cent) or the old­est re­spond­ents (just 13 per­cent, for people born be­fore the mid-1940s).

Whites older than 50, a group that now leans strongly Re­pub­lic­an, were es­pe­cially pess­im­ist­ic about their fin­an­cial pro­spects, with just 24 per­cent ex­pect­ing their bot­tom line to im­prove. That’s only about half the pro­por­tion of whites young­er than 50 who ex­pect gains (47 per­cent).

The grooves are cut even more deeply in as­sess­ments of Obama’s im­pact and per­form­ance. On one meas­ure, the pres­id­ent con­tin­ues to face mostly neg­at­ive re­views, as he has throughout the Heart­land poll. Just 25 per­cent of re­spond­ents said they be­lieved Obama’s agenda will “in­crease op­por­tun­ity for people like you to get ahead.” (That num­ber has not ex­ceeded 32 per­cent throughout Obama’s second term.) Slightly more re­spond­ents—30 per­cent—in the latest poll said Obama’s agenda would “de­crease op­por­tun­ity for people like you to get ahead.” The re­main­ing 41 per­cent ex­pec­ted no im­pact.

As throughout Obama’s pres­id­ency, this ques­tion opens a ra­cial chasm: While 40 per­cent of non­whites say his agenda has in­creased their op­por­tun­it­ies, a mere 17 per­cent of whites agree. Over twice as many whites (36 per­cent) say he has di­min­ished their chances—and that’s the low­est neg­at­ive rat­ing Obama has re­ceived on that meas­ure dur­ing his second term. For much of 2013 and 2014, more than half of white re­spond­ents in Heart­land sur­veys said his agenda was con­strict­ing their op­por­tun­it­ies.

Obama achieves an even split in at­ti­tudes on two oth­er meas­ures that most fully cap­ture the na­tion’s close par­tis­an bal­ance. Asked about the im­pact of the policies he pur­sued dur­ing the re­ces­sion, 46 per­cent said they helped to “avoid an even worse eco­nom­ic crisis, and are lay­ing the found­a­tion for our even­tu­al eco­nom­ic re­cov­ery.” An­oth­er 48 per­cent en­dorsed the neg­at­ive state­ment that Obama’s policies had “run up a re­cord fed­er­al de­fi­cit while fail­ing to end the re­ces­sion or slow the re­cord pace of job losses.”

This ques­tion starkly sep­ar­ates the elect­or­al co­ali­tion that each side now re­lies upon. Obama re­ceives mostly good marks for his im­pact on the eco­nomy from Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans (69 per­cent pos­it­ive), all minor­it­ies (59 per­cent), His­pan­ics (57 per­cent), the mil­len­ni­al gen­er­a­tion (55 per­cent), and col­lege-edu­cated white wo­men (53 per­cent). Those are core ele­ments of the mod­ern Demo­crat­ic co­ali­tion that all have been grow­ing as a share of the elect­or­ate. Jes­sica, a white col­lege-edu­cated nurse from Phil­adelphia (who de­clined to provide her last name), en­cap­su­lated the per­spect­ive of many of these re­spond­ents. “He’s do­ing more for the middle class, which is where most of us lie,” she said. “That’s help­ing us out. He doesn’t buy in­to spe­cial in­terests for the rich, and he’s do­ing what he can.”

Kar­en Smith, a col­lege-edu­cated white wo­man—an edu­ca­tion pro­fess­or—from Farm­ing­ton, Maine, was also pos­it­ive. “I think based on the stat­ist­ics that have been presen­ted, we clearly have come out of the re­ces­sion, and un­em­ploy­ment rates have dropped,” she said. “I think the auto in­dustry has cer­tainly turned around, [and] it was ob­vi­ously in shambles when Obama entered of­fice. So I think there’s more, more, more work to be done on the eco­nomy, but I think we have made some pro­gress since the re­ces­sion and since he entered of­fice.”

By con­trast, Obama gets lousy grades from the groups Re­pub­lic­ans now rely on most: col­lege-edu­cated white men (55 per­cent neg­at­ive); whites older than 50 (56 per­cent); white wo­men without a col­lege de­gree (58 per­cent); and, above all, non­col­lege white men (a re­sound­ing 63 per­cent neg­at­ive).

“Too much of the stuff that is hap­pen­ing is get­ting away from our Amer­ic­an people work­ing hard and earn­ing a liv­ing,” said Rick Mey­ers, a white col­lege-edu­cated ten­nis in­struct­or from Abi­lene, Texas. “There are way too many en­ti­tle­ments and dis­tri­bu­tion-of-wealth things, where those of us who do work hard are hav­ing to give up too much of our money to people who end up not work­ing hard and are get­ting too much free stuff. It’s just that simple. It’s just like with Obama­care—our premi­ums and de­duct­ibles have more than doubled since this has taken over. It’s just not fair.”

Sim­il­ar pat­terns re­sur­face on as­sess­ments of Obama’s over­all per­form­ance. The even split (47 per­cent to 47 per­cent) rep­res­ents the highest ap­prov­al rat­ing Obama has re­gistered in a Heart­land sur­vey since June 2013. The now-cus­tom­ary di­vi­sions are ap­par­ent, with Obama draw­ing ma­jor­ity ap­prov­al from minor­it­ies, from mil­len­ni­als, and (barely) from col­lege-edu­cated white wo­men, and mostly neg­at­ive rat­ings from the Re­pub­lic­an-lean­ing groups. Blue-col­lar white men, the same group fuel­ing Don­ald Trump’s rise in the GOP pres­id­en­tial con­test, are es­pe­cially neg­at­ive; just 22 per­cent ap­prove of Obama’s per­form­ance, and 72 per­cent dis­ap­prove. The num­bers are only slightly bet­ter among whites over 50: 35 per­cent ap­prove, and 61 per­cent dis­ap­prove.

No single num­ber may be more im­port­ant in shap­ing the 2016 elec­tion than the voters’ ver­dict on Obama’s per­form­ance as he con­cludes his term. The exit polls con­duc­ted on Elec­tion Day found that roughly four-fifths of voters who ap­proved of Ron­ald Re­agan in 1988, Bill Clin­ton in 2000, and George W. Bush in 2008 voted for their party’s nom­in­ee to suc­ceed them. Eighty-eight per­cent of voters who dis­ap­proved of Re­agan and Clin­ton voted for the oth­er party’s can­did­ate; for Bush, the pro­por­tion was two-thirds.

That means every per­cent­age point that Obama gains, or loses, in pub­lic ap­prov­al between now and Novem­ber will cast a long shad­ow over the com­pet­i­tion to suc­ceed him.

The latest All­state/Na­tion­al Journ­al Heart­land Mon­it­or Poll is the 25th in a series ex­amin­ing how Amer­ic­ans are ex­per­i­en­cing the chan­ging eco­nomy. This poll re­prises cent­ral ques­tions that the sur­vey has ex­plored, mostly in its first two years, to doc­u­ment how Amer­ic­an at­ti­tudes have changed since the Great Re­ces­sion. It sur­veyed 1,000 adults by land­line and cell phones from Jan. 2 to Jan. 6, and has a mar­gin of er­ror of plus or minus 3.1 per­cent­age points. The sur­vey was su­per­vised by Ed Re­illy and Joseph McMa­hon of FTI Con­sult­ing’s stra­tegic com­mu­nic­a­tions prac­tice.

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