Voters will decide between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump at a moment when Americans seem primed for a message of national renewal. Two thirds of Americans said the country has “pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track” in a CBS News poll this month, and Gallup found an even larger 7 in 10 dissatisfied with the way things are going.
Trump supporters have pointed to these numbers to bolster the theory that this is a change election, with conditions favoring their candidate. If Trump pulls off a surprise win, it’s this number people will be talking about. Yet so far, the pessimism has not driven a majority of voters to support him. In a Washington Post-ABC News tracking poll released Friday, Trump trails Clinton, 48 to 44 percent, a slightly smaller margin than recent polling averages.
Well then, progressives counter, “wrong track” must mean that voters are frustrated with political gridlock and want a Congress that is less obstructionist . Why else would the number be so much worse than President Obama’s approval rating? Yet even though Republicans appear likely to maintain control of the House (and are threatening endless Clinton investigations), the portion of Democrats who think things are going well in the country has ticked up, jumping from 65 percent in June to 85 percent this month, according to a CNN poll released this past week.
So can the “wrong track” indicator tell us anything useful about the country as a whole? Or is it just an inkblot test that allows individuals — pundits and poll respondents — to read into it whatever they want?
It turns out that “right or wrong track” isn’t a great predictor of presidential election outcomes. Candidates from the party that controls the White House have performed better when more Americans see the country heading on the right course. But that connection unravels when the incumbent president’s job approval is taken into account. The impact of presidential job approval is unsurprising, but it appears to outweigh any effect of “wrong track” sentiment during presidential election years. In presidential elections since 1980, a simple statistical analysis finds, the percentage of Americans saying the country is on the wrong track has not at all been predictive of the incumbent party’s share of the vote. An analysis by the New York Times’ Nate Cohn that also included economic factors found a similar result, with pessimism exerting no negative impact on results.
One of the best examples of pessimism’s poor track record occurred just four years ago. A Post-ABC poll in August 2012 found 67 percent of registered voters saying the country was on the wrong track, yet Obama won reelection with 52 percent of all votes for a major-party candidate. President Bill Clinton won his 1996 reelection bid by a large margin over Bob Dole despite the fact that 67 percent saw the country as headed on the wrong track in June.
In both years, Obama’s and Clinton’s job-approval ratings far outpaced optimism about the country’s overall direction, and optimism grew closer to their approval marks in the months leading up to the election, especially among Democrats who overwhelmingly supported their party’s candidate. There are signs — including the CNN poll released this past week — that the impending election is driving up optimism for Democrats again this year.
The 2000 election was the only cycle when Americans were more optimistic than pessimistic according to mid-year polling, when 49 percent saw the country headed in the right direction and 40 percent on the wrong track. If the measure were influential, it might have predicted a landslide for Al Gore, yet he barely won the national popular vote and lost in electoral votes to George W. Bush. Clinton’s roughly 60 percent job-approval rating also proved insufficient for Democrats to prevail.
That history bodes well for Hillary Clinton’s chances this year, with approval of Obama’s job performance rising significantly over the past year to 55 percent in Post-ABC polling last month and the same in Gallup surveys released in the past week.
With no clear impact on elections, what does Americans’ persistently downbeat view of their country mean? “Wrong track” used to align pretty closely with sentiment about the economy. But it’s diverged in recent years.
Since 2008, Americans have replaced broadly shared concerns about the economy with a panoply of other issues reflecting personal experiences and political views. When Gallup in September asked an open-ended question about the nation’s most important problem, one-third of respondents cited economic issues; 11 percent mentioned poor leadership, corruption and other problems with government or Congress; and at least 5 percent said something about elections, racial issues, immigration, terrorism, national security or moral decline. Democrats may be right that “wrong track” numbers are in part a reflection of frustration with gridlock and declining trust in government. But that’s hardly all they’re about.
So why do pollsters bother asking the right-track/wrong-track question when it seems to mean something different to almost every person answering it? One reason is that the nation’s mood is intrinsically important, providing a basic gauge of how Americans think the country is doing and whether people are more optimistic or pessimistic than in the past. Presidents can succeed or fail regardless of the public’s mood, but the public’s overall outlook sets the stage for political debates.
We know from the “wrong track” responses that both Clinton and Trump will have difficulty reversing the nation’s funk if elected. Majorities of the public see each of them negatively and are anxious about what their presidency would bring.