Two-thirds of Americans think that the country is on the wrong track, according to Bloomberg polling from the end of last month. That sentiment is regularly cited by supporters of Donald Trump as evidence of his inevitable victory: If two-thirds of the country wants a change of course, why would they vote for Hillary Clinton?
To which there's a twofold response. One, different people seem to think that America is headed in the wrong direction for different reasons, not all of which bolster a Trump candidacy. Two, thinking America is on the wrong track is sort of the new normal.
Let's start with that latter point. Huffington Post Pollster has data on the question since shortly before President Obama's election. Averaging the poll results by month shows the pattern: a big dip in those saying we were headed in the wrong direction once Obama took office, followed by a steady slide back up. Spikes in August 2011 and October 2013 probably thanks to Congress flirting with debt default and then shutting down the government. But beyond those jumps and a slight recent uptick, the attitude has been steady since about 2009. About 62 percent of Americans think we're headed in the wrong direction and about 29 percent think we're on the right track.
That steadiness from 2009 forward mirrors another fairly steady data point: Obama's approval rating. Since the end of his first year in office, Obama's approval rating has been very low with Republicans and very high with Democrats, moving in a narrow band. Among independents, it's gone up and down a bit, which has been most of what drives changes in his overall approval.
There's overlap between partisanship and right-track numbers, too. When a Republican is president, Democrats are less likely to say we're on the right track, and vice versa. But notice that after tanking at the end of George W. Bush's second term, Republican views of the direction of the country never recovered. Throughout Obama's presidency, right-track responses from Republicans have been mired in the teens — if that high.
We can draw one correlation. For the last six months before the elections of 2010, 2012 and 2014, the percent of poll respondents saying that America was on the right track fell 4 points, rose 12 points and fell 4 points, respectively. In those elections, the Democrats lost 63, gained 8 and lost 13 House seats, respectively. Oh, and in the middle one, they held the White House.
The change over the last six months? Zero.
One argument, put forward by John Harwood at the New York Times, is that Democrats say that the country is on the wrong track because of Trump. “Some of those people say we’re on the wrong track because we have a dangerous, delusional and unqualified Republican nominee for president,” a Democratic pollster told Harwood.
That's a little tricky to draw out. The last time The Post asked the right-track question was in July. Here's how different demographic groups responded, arranged from most to least optimism.
Clinton supporters are the most likely to say that the country is on the right track — but still more than a third say we're headed in the wrong direction. Fascinatingly, those who approve of Obama's job performance are about split on how the country is progressing. Those numbers overlap completely with the responses from black voters, 48 percent of whom thought at that point that the country was on the wrong track.
YouGov looked at its own data to try to figure out what was motivating the wrong-track sentiment. It found that 22 percent of those saying we were on the wrong track blamed Obama, Clinton and congressional Democrats, while 10 percent blamed Trump or congressional Republicans. Another fifth blamed both sides.
There's a decent correlation between disapproval of Congress overall and a sense that the country is on the wrong track. Again using data from Huffington Post Pollster:
A lot of this, then, seems to be linked generally to dissatisfaction with government. People who think the president should be an outsider are also much more likely to think the country is on the wrong track, understandably — but 42 percent of those who say we're on the wrong track still think it's more important for a president to have experience than to be an outsider.
In short? It's complicated. Past elections have rewarded the party out of presidential power as more people think we're headed in the wrong direction, but the reasons people think that vary. And so far, that particular data point has been flat over the past half year.
There's one other bit of data worth noting, though. Clinton has led Trump consistently in national polling. Suggesting that no matter what path people think the country is on, Trump's not reaping the benefits.