Public Opinion and the Mid-Term Elections

By Kohut, Andrew; Toth, Robert C. | Nieman Reports, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

Public Opinion and the Mid-Term Elections


Kohut, Andrew, Toth, Robert C., Nieman Reports


Without much argument, the 1994 mid-term election was historic event. The Republicans swept to power in the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years despite a Democrat in the White House. But the outcome should have come as no surprise to those who followed the opinion polls closely before the election.

Most polls did a good job of finding and tracking the Republican lead throughout 1994. By the fall, most national surveys showed the unusually high level of GOP support, suggesting a major Republican victory. Some polls were better than others in explaining what the high percentage of support would mean in terms of the outcome of congressional elections, however. Those polls that came closest to the mark focused on intentions of the likely voters rather than the registered voters or the eligible voters. And of them, the surveys of most value attempted to understand how the popular vote would translate into the potential shift of seats in the House. The Times Mirror Center watched public opinion unfold with four surveys, starting in the spring and extending to tile final weekend before election day in November. In them we plumbed the mood of the electorate with questions about their values and attitudes as well as their party affiliation and past voting behavior. Our polling benefited from having measured these basic attitudes and values in the public regularly since 1987, so that by the summer, we had a very good sense of how significantly the national mood differed in 1994 from previous pre-election periods.

Our March poll found that the economic recovery had "little impact" on the public mood as a whole. It continued to be "sour," with less than one in four Americans saying they were satisfied with the way things were going in the country, even though the public sensed the positive economic turn-around. The graph on the preceding page plots responses to this question for 15 years.

Economic concerns were eclipsed by crime as the most important national problem, for example. But Americans remained "highly dissatisfied with the state of the nation, financially burdened, and fearful about their future." Continued discontent with earning power of jobs was inhibiting celebration of the economic recovery, while politically, the Whitewater investigation weighed down Clinton's approval ratings.

The disparity between how individuals felt about the state of the nation compared to the conditions of their community was greater than usual. Just 24 percent were satisfied with the country's course (essentially no change from the previous October when it stood at 22 percent), while 68 percent were satisfied with the way things were going in their local community and 83 percent were content with their personal life. The public usually feels better about conditions closer to home, but the difference between its view of national vs. local and personal conditions was particularly striking because the public was feeling that the national economy was on the mend and concerns about unemployment and the recession were well below the 1993 levels.

Clinton's approval rating was not buoyed by the rising tide of economic indicators largely because jobs remained a top problem during the spring and the public was not optimistic that any benefits that were occurring would last. More than half (52 percent) of respondents said they or someone in their family had lost a job, taken a cut in pay or benefits, or worked where job cuts have occurred. While the public saw crime as the top national problem, it listed the job situation as first priority for Clinton, just as it had four months earlier. Some 44 percent of American workers said they had a job that paid them enough to lead the kind of life to which they aspired, but only 33 percent said they expected to say the same in the future, a level essentially unchanged from 1992. A bare majority (51 percent) said they worried greatly that their children would not have good job opportunities. …

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