Anger doesn't tell whole story of 2010 election season

By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 28, 2010

Angry voters are everywhere.

Watch any cable news chat show, read any political blog or peruse the pages of any major newspaper and you will be bombarded with headlines about how the American electorate is mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.

But is all the coverage right? Are voters more angry now than they were in, say, 2006 or 2008? And is anger the right emotion to describe what is clearly roiling an electorate that has thrown three House members, two senators and a governor out of office so far this year?

Yes and no, according to pollsters on both sides of the aisle.

Describing voters as "angry" is both too narrow and too broad. Too narrow because there are a range of other emotions -- anxiety, frustration, doubt -- intermingling with the anger, and too broad in that the truly angry voters appear to be largely bunched on the Republican side.

Let's take on the "too narrow" aspect of the equation first.

"I'm not sure that [voters are] more 'angry' than in previous cycles," said Michael Bocian, a Democratic pollster with Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research. "What I'm seeing is that they're frustrated with what's happening in their lives -- bad economy, high unemployment -- and disappointed that the change they hoped for hasn't arrived."

(Bocian's point affirms a belief long held in political circles -- that the same "change" voters who put Barack Obama in the White House in 2008 helped elect Scott Brown to the Senate from Massachusetts earlier this year.)

John McLaughlin, a GOP pollster who does work for House Republicans, echoed Bocian's sentiment. "The trend for the majority of voters is anxious," he said, adding that the critical voting bloc in the fall will be the 25 percent of voters who voted for Obama in 2008, are planning to vote in 2010 and are not inclined to cast a ballot for Democrats. "They are worried, concerned and pessimistic," McLaughlin said.

National polling bears out that pessimism and anxiety. In a recent NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, less than one in three respondents (29 percent) said the country was headed in the right direction, while 65 percent said it was on the wrong track. And in a Washington Post-ABC poll earlier this month, 45 percent described themselves as "dissatisfied" with how the federal government works, and 25 percent described themselves as "angry." (Worth noting: Just 2 percent said they were "enthusiastic" about the workings of the federal government, and 28 percent said they were "satisfied.")

And that gets us to the "too broad" problem with the "voters are angry" narrative. More accurately, some people are angry. Even more accurate: Republicans are angry.

Wes Anderson, a Republican pollster, compared focus groups he analyzed for the Republican National Committee in 2008 that showed "angry Democrats, frustrated independents and apathetic Republicans" with recent surveys that show "depressed Democrats, even more frustrated independents and angry Republicans."

A National Public Radio survey in 70 of the most competitive congressional districts -- conducted jointly by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg and Republican pollster Glen Bolger -- underlines Anderson's point. In the 60 districts included in the poll currently represented by Democrats, 62 percent of Republicans described themselves as enthusiastic about the coming elections, compared with 37 percent of Democrats. In his analysis of the poll, Bolger noted that while Republicans held a five-point edge in all of the Democratic districts on the generic ballot question -- "Would you vote for an unnamed Republican or an unnamed Democrat for Congress?" -- that margin grew to a 14-point edge for the GOP among the most interested voters.

"If the question is whether or not voters are any angrier [in recent elections], the answer is no -- it's just a different group of the electorate is mad," Bolger told the Fix in a recent interview. (A recent CNN poll provides a "pox on both your houses" counterweight to that theory, with more than half -- 53 percent -- expressing anger with Democrats and Republicans.

Passion -- whether it be anger, frustration or something else -- is a valuable commodity in historically low-turnout midterm elections. The Republican base is, without question, ready to send a message to President Obama this fall. The central question is whether Democrats can find a way to match that intensity, rallying their base in advance of November.

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