Commentary: Voter anger may be real but overstated

Donna Fletcher and Steven Harvey attend a protest in the small northern Arizona town of Winslow.
Donna Fletcher and Steven Harvey attend a protest in the small northern Arizona town of Winslow. Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times/MCT

It’s 2010, and the voters are angry.

And frustrated.

And frightened.

That, at least, is the narrative for this campaign – a narrative crafted by pundits and confirmed by pollsters. And while the anger is alleged to be aimed at incumbent politicians, it seems to be falling most violently on incumbent politicians who also happen to be Democrats.

So this question on the recent Washington Poll conducted by social science researchers at the University of Washington (and now co-sponsored by public broadcasters KCTS and KPLU) is of interest.

“Do you think things here in Washington state are generally going in the right direction, or seriously on the wrong track?” Some 500 registered voters were asked that question in telephone surveys conducted between Oct. 5 and 14, resulting in a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 percent.

Nearly half – 47 percent – responded that “things” were going seriously in the wrong direction while 37 percent said they were going in the right direction. The rest said they didn’t know or refused to answer.

“I guess voters are frustrated. You don’t have to call an expert to get that sound bite,” said Matt Barreto, the political scientist who oversaw the poll.

But Barreto said that given the coverage of this election, he might have expected the number to be worse for Democrats.

“I don’t want to minimize it, but there is always voter frustration,” Barreto said. “People in the minority party are always frustrated at the mid-term election.” In 2006 the anger was aimed at Republicans, and Democrats benefited.

That isn’t to say Republicans won’t make gains nationally and in the state. And the latest results show an electorate more unhappy than the Washington Poll’s results (washingtonpoll.org) just last May when the right track/wrong direction ratio was 41 percent to 44 percent.

It’s just that Barreto thinks, based on the poll results, that the anger factor might be real but overstated.

“It’s not anywhere to the degree that it’s reported,” Barreto said. “If that’s the case, you’d see more than a 10 percent gap.”

President Barack Obama gets relatively high favorability marks in the Washington Poll with 52 percent saying they have a very favorable or somewhat favorable view of him. Gov. Chris Gregoire totals 41 percent (with 52 percent viewing her unfavorably).

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray totals 48 percent favorable; Republican challenger Dino Rossi totals 40 percent.

It isn’t that the pollsters happened upon an especially buoyant section of the electorate either, because when the same voters are asked about legislative bodies controlled by Democrats, the favorable ratings fall to 27 percent for Congress and 34 percent for the Legislature.

In the matchup between Murray and Rossi, Murray had a 50 percent to 42 percent edge – if voters who are leaning toward one of the candidates are included. They split male voters, but Murray led among women by 17 points.

While Republicans have been critical of the Washington Poll in the past, Barreto’s final poll in both the 2008 gubernatorial race and the 2006 U.S. Senate race were very close to the actual results.

Still, polls in the 2010 Senate race have been mind-bogglingly inconsistent, with some giving Rossi sizeable leads, others showing Murray well ahead and still others showing the race even.

Barreto thinks the reason may be different methods used to zero in on the voters who are likely to cast a ballot. That is, it doesn’t matter much how voters view a race if they aren’t going to actually vote.

This is what pollsters term the enthusiasm gap, and most show Republican-leaning voters to be more motivated to vote this year than Democrats.

When the Washington Poll conducts another survey later in the month, it will try to find likely voters. That said, because most of the vote in Washington is by mail, Barreto thinks the gap between registered voters and actual voters will be less here than elsewhere.

“That could lead to a smaller enthusiasm gap,” he said.