Sunday, November 9, 2008

What Is "Wrong Track?"

Various pundits and opinion writers make much of the finding that large percentages of the American public believe the nation is on the "wrong track." For example this Fairleigh Dickinson University poll, done before the election, found that 86% of Democrats and 69% of Republicans believed the U.S. "has gotten off on the wrong track." The survey question normally asked in polls of this sort is the following one.
In your opinion, do you believe that the country is moving in the right direction or do you believe it has gotten off on the wrong track?

As you can tell, it does not provide any clues as to what aspects of the country the respondent believes "have gotten off on the wrong track." So...what does this statistic mean, if anything? I intend to argue here that it means many different, and conflicting, things to different people.

Conventional wisdom suggests a substantial number of those "wrong track" Democrats believe the U.S. should never have invaded Iraq, should not be holding Islamic terrorists in Guantanamo, etc. Some further number are concerned about the drop in housing values, and other negative sequelae from the bursting of the housing bubble.

A substantial number of the "wrong track" Republicans are unhappy about the coarsening of the culture (i.e., erectile dysfunction ads and gay sex on TV, the "streetwalker/gangsta" fashions of our teens), the widespread availability of abortions and a presidential candidate who doesn't agree with them on illegal immigration. Some additional group are disgusted with their own party's big spending ways in Congress.

So, what attitudes does the above question really tap? Perhaps free-floating hostility? Angst? Generalized willingness to engage in road rage behaviors? Ironically, lots of "wrong track" opinion appears to result in decreased voter participation by the party which is incumbent and increased participation by the party that is "out." They may be cranky about quite different things but, their behaviors are opposite and symmetrical. As we reported here, Republican voter turnout was down in the election just concluded.

My question is this: Is the converse true? Do high "right direction" numbers result in big votes by incumbent party voters and apathetic turnout among the "outs?" This sounds like a research question for a real voter analyst like Michael Barone. Logic suggests it could be true.

Note to President-elect Obama: four years from now those "right direction" numbers had better be up a lot, even for Republicans. Presumably, if the "outs" are happy with the country's direction, they are less likely to vote while the "ins" will turn out in droves. That is the electoral outcome the President will want in 2012.