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Poll Finds a 'Perfect Storm' of Voter Distrust in Government

5 years ago
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Only about one in five registered voters believe they can trust the government in Washington to do the right thing "just about always" or most of the time, while an overwhelming majority say it will do the right thing only some of the time or never, according a Pew Research Center poll conducted March 11-21.

The survey found a strikingly negative view of government among voters that it attributed to "a perfect storm of conditions associated with distrust of government – a dismal economy, an unhappy public, bitter partisan based backlash, and epic discontent with Congress and elected officials."

Pew's analysis concluded that "rather than an activist government to deal with the nation's top problems, the public now wants government reformed and growing numbers want its power curtailed. With the exception of greater regulation of major financial institutions, there is less of an appetite for government solutions to the nation's problems – including more government control over the economy – than there was when Barack Obama first took office."

The poll said 22 percent trust the government to do the right thing just about always or most of the time compared to 76 percent who say it will do the right thing only some of the time or not at all. Only 3 percent of those surveyed were in the "just about always" category. The majority (65 percent) believe government will do the right thing only some of the time while 11 percent trusted it none of the time.

Republicans registered the highest overall level of distrust (86 percent), followed by independents (70 percent) and Democrats (64 percent).

Compared to the 22 percent trust level in the government currently under President Obama, the average trust level under the Bush administration was 37 percent. The average trust scores during the tenures of administrations before that were 29 percent for Bill Clinton's, 36 percent for George H.W. Bush, 42 percent for Ronald Reagan, 29 percent for Jimmy Carter, 40 percent for Nixon/Ford and 68 percent for Kennedy/Johnson.

While a majority of Americans have said in each Pew survey back to 1997 that they were frustrated with government (except for the poll taken shortly after 9/11), the percentage of those who describe themselves as angry rose from 12 percent in 1997 to 21 percent. Nineteen percent say they are basically content, a number that has fallen from a high of 33 percent in 2000 (again, discounting the 2001 poll, when there was a positive spike in the aftermath of 9/11).

Republicans and independents make up the main groups who are angry with government, at 30 percent and 25 percent, respectively, while only 9 percent of Democrats feel that way. Forty-three percent of those who identify with the Tea Party movement describe themselves as angry.

Thirty percent of those surveyed see the federal government as a major threat to them with 43 percent of Republicans and 33 percent of independents holding that view along with 18 percent of Democrats. Fifty-seven percent of Tea Partiers say the government is a threat.

Seventy percent said waste and inefficiency were major problems with government, 62 percent cited policies that unfairly benefited some, 56 percent said government did too little for average Americans, 52 percent called it too big and powerful, and a plurality, 46 percent, said it interfered too much in people's lives,

Fifty-percent say government programs should be maintained, while 47 percent say they should be cut back (the margin of error is 3 points). That compares to 1997, when 57 percent favored maintaining government programs versus 41 percent who called for them to be cut back. The biggest change in attitude was among Republicans -- where those favoring cutbacks grew from 53 percent in 1997 to 67 percent in the new poll -- and independents who lean Republican, where the percentage favoring cutbacks grew from 54 percent to 70 percent.

Pew says the dissatisfaction with government is more likely to drive turnout among Republicans and independents than Democrats in this year's midterm elections. Eighty-three percent of Republican voters who describe themselves as highly dissatisfied say they are absolutely certain to vote, as do 78 percent of independents who feel the same way. In both cases, that declared commitment to turn out at the polls is higher in each case than it is for Republicans and independents who express lower levels of frustration.

However, among Democrats, 63 percent who are highly frustrated with government say they are certain to vote, and the percentage is about the same (64 percent) for those less frustrated.

While the so-called "enthusiasm gap" is a concern for the Democrats, the Tea Party movement is potentially a cause for worry for the Republicans. Forty-nine percent of Republicans say their party best reflects their views, but 28 say the Tea Party does. Among independents, 42 percent say none of the political groups best reflect their views, 16 percent say the Tea Party movement does, 12 percent side with the Republicans and 17 percent favor the Democrats.

Unhappiness with government extends to both major political parties. Pew says, "Large majorities across partisan lines see elected officials as not careful with the government's money, influenced by special interest money, overly concerned about their own careers, unwilling to compromise and out of touch with regular Americans."

Just 43 percent of voters said they would like to see their current member of Congress re-elected this fall, the lowest number since the 1994 midterms. In every congressional election since 1994, a majority favored re-election of their lawmaker except in an early October 1994 survey, when the number was 49 percent.

In general, when trust falls steeply, incumbents are more likely to lose – and the president's party tends to lose the most, said Pew. "Over the last two election cycles, the effects of low trust also have been evident. In 2006, 24 incumbents lost seats – all of them Republicans – as Democrats regained control of Congress. And in 2008 Democrats grew their majority larger and won the White House, when trust was at or near record lows."

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