Poll: Independents Are Angry, Despairing

Steven Shepard

Americans are as disgusted with their government—and with Congress, in particular—as they have ever been, and the overwhelming disillusionment of independents portends great electoral uncertainty next November, according to an analysis of the latest United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll.

Overall, the poll shows that those voters aligned with neither party lack confidence in the federal government and are more eager to change the people who make up that government. Independents are also significantly less confident in the government than they were last summer, before the bitter, scorched-earth fight over raising the federal debt ceiling and the failure of the super committee to produce a plan to reduce the budget deficit.

Twenty-nine percent of respondents have “a lot” or “some confidence” that the federal government will make progress over the next year on the most important problems facing the country. But among independents, just 18 percent express that level of confidence. A whopping 80 percent of independents say they have “not much confidence” or “no confidence at all” in the federal government to make progress next year.

The poll shows a sharp decline in independents’ optimism just since late July, as both political parties ramped up negotiations over the federal government’s debt limit. The debt-ceiling fight and the super committee’s failure have taken a significant toll on how Americans (and independents in particular) view the federal government. In the previous poll, 42 percent of voters and 36 percent of independents said they had “a lot” or “some” confidence in the government. Sixty-three percent of independents said they had “not much” or “no confidence at all.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Democrats retain the most confidence in government, with 48 percent expressing some level of confidence, slightly lower than the 54 percent who expressed some confidence in July. Only 23 percent of Republicans express some confidence, down from 33 percent.

The United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, which surveyed 1,008 adults by landline and cell phone from Dec. 8-11. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points. The margin of error is higher for subgroups.

The poll is the latest in a series of national surveys that will track the public’s priorities for Congress—and its assessment of Washington’s performance—during most weeks that Congress is in session through what is likely to be a tumultuous 2012.

Only a quarter of independents—compared with 38 percent of Democrats and 34 percent of Republicans—think their congressional representative has performed his or her job well enough to deserve reelection. Fifty-six percent of independents say that it is time to give a new person a chance, compared with 49 percent of Democrats and 46 percent of Republicans.

On this measure, independents’ views are virtually unchanged from late July, when 24 percent said they thought their member of Congress deserved to be reelected and 60 percent preferred a new person.

And only 7 percent of independents said most other members of Congress deserve to be reelected; 10 percent of all Americans believe they do. This finding is statistically unchanged from July.

Independents’ capriciousness has led to three consecutive turbulent congressional-election cycles. In 2006, independents voted overwhelmingly for House Democrats, allowing the party to reclaim both houses of Congress. Exit polls showed that 57 percent of independents voted for the Democratic candidate for the House, while just 39 percent supported the Republican candidate.

In 2008, 51 percent of independents voted for the Democratic House candidate, compared with 43 percent who voted for the Republican, according to exit polls. President Obama won a similar percentage, 52 percent, of independents, while Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., won 44 percent.

But in 2010, independents’ discontent led to the Republican landslide that gave the GOP control of the House. Fifty-seven percent of independents voted for the Republican congressional candidate, compared with just 37 percent for the Democratic candidate.

Asked whether they prefer one-party control of both chambers, or that the two parties should have split control of Congress, an overwhelming 65 percent majority of independents supported split control “so the two chambers can act as a check on each other,” according to the new Congressional Connection Poll.

Yet, with a presidential race at the top of the ticket and confidence in government near an all-time low, the great discontent with both parties means that the outcome in 2012 remains ambiguous.