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Is 2012 the anger election?

at 02:13 PM ET, 11/16/2011

Voters on the left and the right of the political spectrum have both taken to the streets to protest the state of politics in this country over the last two years. And most political observers agree: People are angry. Very angry.

But is the anger we see today really as unprecedented as some would lead you to believe? And is it really what’s driving the political mood heading into 2012?


Activist musicians David Crosby and Graham Nash delivered a touch of Woodstock to Occupy Wall Street protesters at Zuccotti Park on Tuesday. (Associated Press)

Those who watch these things are skeptical.

“I don’t buy it,” Democratic pollster John Anzalone said. “Voter anger was the Vietnam era, the civil rights era. Even the gas lines of the 70s and hyperinflation during [former President Jimmy] Carter; that was anger. We have ‘Occupy Wall Street’, but this is no Kent State.”

In a Washington Post-ABC News poll 31 percent of people said they are angry with the way the federal government is working – a new high for the poll, going back to 1992. Similarly, the Pew Research Center showed in August that 26 percent of people said they were angry. That was also a new high, going back more than a decade.

But the Post and Pew polls both show far more people expressing disenchantment using less-aggressive terms — 49 percent in the Post poll say they are merely “dissatisfied but not angry,” while 60 percent in the Pew Poll said they were “frustrated.”

Those are also record highs, but Anzalone said that they speak to the fact that the prevailing political sentiment in the country today is more disgust than anger. He added that the high levels of economic anxiety when combined with the political divisiveness that has consumed the country is what’s genuinely unprecedented.

“The combination is lethal and dangerous for politicians,” he said. “We saw a big swing in 2008 and then 2010 and we may see another swing in 2012, which will include primary losses for Republicans....and then maybe a Democratic House again, or at least gains.”

(It should be noted that, while Anzalone sees Democratic gains in the House, Republicans think they have a good shot at retaking the Senate and the White House. In truth, nobody knows how the current state of affairs will translate into votes cast in 2012.)

What we do know is that voter anger matters. In the last two elections that featured big swings toward Republicans — 1994 and 2010 — at least three-quarters of those who described themselves as “angry” voted for the GOP. In 1992 – a good year for Democrats — 56 percent of angry voters sided with their party, according to exit polling.

Anger is a powerful thing, because it motivates voters to show up at the polls. But the fact that less than one in three Americans identify themselves as angry suggests that the emotion won’t be the single motivating factor in 2012.

Instead, what is driving voters today is more of a general discontent. (“The sort of general malaise that only the genius possess and the insane lament.” — Dr. Evil.) The vast majority of people don’t like Congress and don’t believe government is performing its duties, but even a majority of these people don’t ascribe “anger” as one of their primary emotions.

True, some polling shows much higher levels of anger. A CNN/Opinion Research poll recently showed 72 percent of people describing themselves as angry, but when given a chance to use a similar word that isn’t as harsh, people generally opt for it. Hence the higher numbers for “dissatisfied but not angry” in the Post-ABC poll and “frustrated” in the Pew poll.

Former Republican National Committeeman David Norcross said frustration is a step toward anger, however. “Absence of leadership and the polarized philosophies lead to frustration, which leads to anger,” he argued. “All of which is overlaid by economic concern for our future.”

 
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