Voters' Optimism Drops As Economic Fears Rise

By Jon Cohen and Jennifer Agiesta
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Concern about the economy has jumped to the front of voters' minds as optimism about the nation's direction has dipped to its lowest point in more than a decade, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Nearly eight in 10 now think the country is "pretty seriously" off track. That is the most sour public assessment since the January 1996 political standoff between President Bill Clinton and the Republican-controlled Congress that led to a historic government shutdown.

This time, a slowing economy is a prime culprit in the negative outlook and serves as a further drag on public views of President Bush. The president's ratings have not topped 50 percent in Post-ABC polls in nearly three years, with the war in Iraq the main tow on his standing.

Bush's approval rating stands at 32 percent, a career low in Post-ABC polling. Only 28 percent give him positive marks for dealing with the economy, another new low point.

Two-thirds feel "strongly" that the next president should take the country in a different direction, and negative views of the Bush administration and the economy threaten to transform the presidential race.

Over the past four months, the percentage of Americans calling the economy and jobs their most important voting issue has nearly tripled, catapulting the issue past the war in Iraq as the top voter concern in the presidential election.

In the new national poll, the economy-and-jobs issue ranks first for voters in each party, and majorities in each are pessimistic about the direction of the country, although there is a significant partisan divide. More than nine in 10 Democrats and eight in 10 independents see the country as on the wrong track; 51 percent of Republicans agree.

There is also agreement about what people want out of the next president: a new direction. Nearly eight in 10 want the next president to take the country away from where Bush has been taking it. At this stage in Clinton's final year in office, 53 percent were seeking continuity.

Now, 53 percent of Republicans want the next president to chart a new path; nearly three-quarters of independents feel "strongly" about it. Among Republicans who see the economy as a major voting issue, nearly two-thirds want a new direction.

Assessments of Bush and his administration will probably color the fall campaigns for the White House and for Congress, but they are also affecting the presidential nominating races.

In New Hampshire, where moderates and liberals boosted Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) to victory on Jan. 8 in the GOP primary, voters' feelings toward Bush divided the electorate. While former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who has steadfastly sided with Bush, edged out McCain among voters were enthusiastic or satisfied with the administration, McCain beat Romney by double digits among those with a more negative take, according to network exit polls.

Nearly all Democratic voters and eight in 10 Republican voters in New Hampshire said they were "very" or "somewhat" worried about the direction of the nation's economy. Voters in both parties' primaries called it the country's most important problem.

And the economy's rise as a concern adds a fresh wrinkle for the beleaguered president, as well as for his party.

This poll marks the first time since May 2006 in which the president's rating on the economy (28 percent) is lower than on Iraq (30 percent), although the difference is not statistically significant.

Disaffection among independents is up the most steeply, increasing 12 percentage points in the past month and 18 points from a year ago.

Only 21 percent of Americans said they and their families are "getting ahead" financially, and about as many, 17 percent, said they are "falling behind." The majority, 61 percent, said they have "just enough money to maintain" their standard of living.

When asked about their biggest financial concerns, 24 percent highlighted health-care costs, 23 percent mentioned inflation or rising prices generally, 16 percent specified gasoline prices, and 12 percent cited high taxes.

The poll was conducted Jan. 9-12 among a random sample of 1,130 adults and has an error margin of three points.

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