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Poll finds most Americans are unhappy with government

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By Jon Cohen and Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 11, 2010

Two-thirds of Americans are "dissatisfied" or downright "angry" about the way the federal government is working, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. On average, the public estimates that 53 cents of every tax dollar they send to Washington is "wasted."

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Despite the disapproval of government, few Americans say they know much about the "tea party" movement, which emerged last year and attracted voters angry at a government they thought was spending recklessly and overstepping its constitutional powers. And the new poll shows that the political standing of former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who was the keynote speaker last week at the first National Tea Party Convention, has deteriorated significantly.

The opening is clear: Public dissatisfaction with how Washington operates is at its highest level in Post-ABC polling in more than a decade -- since the months after the Republican-led government shutdown in 1996 -- and negative ratings of the two major parties hover near record highs.

But nearly two-thirds of those polled say they know just some, very little or nothing about what the tea party movement stands for. About one in eight says they know "a great deal" about the positions of tea party groups, but the lack of information does not erase the appeal: About 45 percent of all Americans say they agree at least somewhat with tea partiers on issues, including majorities of Republicans and independents.

Although Palin is a tea party favorite, her potential as a presidential hopeful takes a severe hit in the survey. Fifty-five percent of Americans have unfavorable views of her, while the percentage holding favorable views has dipped to 37, a new low in Post-ABC polling.

There is a growing sense that the former Alaska governor is not qualified to serve as president, with more than seven in 10 Americans now saying she is unqualified, up from 60 percent in a November survey. Even among Republicans, a majority now say Palin lacks the qualifications necessary for the White House.

Palin has lost ground among conservative Republicans, who would be crucial to her hopes if she seeks the party's presidential nomination in 2012. Forty-five percent of conservatives now consider her as qualified for the presidency, down sharply from 66 percent who said so last fall.

Among all Republicans polled, 37 percent now hold a "strongly favorable" opinion of Palin, about half the level recorded when she burst onto the national stage in 2008 as Sen. John McCain's running mate.

Among Democrats and independents, assessments of Palin also have eroded. Six percent of Democrats now consider her qualified for the presidency, a drop from 22 percent in November; the percentage of independents who think she is qualified fell to 29 percent from 37 percent.

In her speech at last week's tea party gathering in Nashville, Palin said she will campaign on behalf of conservative candidates -- some backed by tea party groups -- in contested Republican primaries, even if doing so might split the GOP electorate.

The new poll shows Republicans divided about the tea party movement, which threatens to cause a rift in the lead-up to November's midterm elections. Two-thirds of those calling themselves "strong Republicans" view the movement favorably, compared with 33 percent among "not very strong Republicans."

Overall opinion is about evenly split, with 35 percent of all Americans holding favorable views of the movement and 40 percent unfavorable ones. A quarter expressed no opinion. Nearly six in 10 Democrats have unfavorable views, while independents are split, 39 percent positive and 40 percent negative.

Even after staging a national convention that garnered worldwide media attention, the burgeoning tea party effort remains something of an enigma. Through town hall protests and mass gatherings, it has given voice to those disillusioned with President Obama's economic policies and health-care agenda. But the movement -- made up of hundreds of grass-roots groups -- has no national leadership by design, making it difficult to measure the size or makeup of its following.

The new poll offers a portrait of tea party supporters as overwhelmingly white, mostly conservative and generally disapproving of Obama.

Among those who identify themselves as conservatives, those who are angry about the federal government and those who say they know at least a good amount about the tea party, about two-thirds said they agree with the movement.

Overall, two-thirds of all those polled are dissatisfied with or angry about the way the government works, the highest number to say so in periodic polling since March 1996. Eight in 10 conservative Republicans hold negative views about the way government works, but by contrast, 59 percent of liberal Democrats said they were "enthusiastic" or "satisfied" about the role government was playing.

The poll was conducted by conventional and cellular telephone Feb. 4 to 8, partly overlapping with the tea party convention. The results varied only marginally night to night. The margin of sampling error for the for the full poll of 1,004 randomly selected adults is plus or minus three percentage points.


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