Wrong-track notions dog both parties

For several decades, the most interesting and mystical contrivance in the pollster’s toolbox has been the right-direction, wrong-track question. We don’t know precisely what attitudes it measures, though we believe they’re significant. And we don’t fully understand its relevance to political behavior, but we sense that it’s predictive of something.

For several decades, the most interesting and mystical contrivance in the pollster’s toolbox has been the right-direction, wrong-track question. We don’t know precisely what attitudes it measures, though we believe they’re significant. And we don’t fully understand its relevance to political behavior, but we sense that it’s predictive of something.

Lately, I have been seeing a small but perceptible downward drift in right-direction sentiment in polls that I conduct. This worries me because it may have some impact on a GOP majority and the reelection of valued clients.

When I first got into the polling game in the mid-1980s, it was generally assumed that right-direction sentiment was heavily weighted toward economic considerations. Prosperity translated into right-direction answers, and deprivations provoked wrong-track sentiments.

But as soon as I had internalized that understanding, the ground seemed to shift. I began to see issues like crime influencing the polls on the direction of the country or a state. Voters who felt that crime was rampant naturally were reluctant to say things are headed in the right direction, no matter how strong the economy. Concerns about crime drifted into concerns about a whole raft of social issues, from welfare fraud to secular humanism. So wrong-track sentiment became mainstream right-wing ideology.

But as soon as I had accepted the social component of right-direction, wrong-track opinions, the ground shifted again and put the economy back into the driver’s seat, even for Republicans. If you asked “right direction” voters about their positive outlook during the last days of Bill Clinton’s reign, most voters would have talked about economics. Yet still some social-conservative Republicans held fast to wrong-track belief during Clinton’s presidency.

But during the Bush years things changed for both parties. I began to see polls where most all Democrats (even the prosperous ones) were unhappy with the direction of “things” and most all the Republicans (even those struggling economically) were exuberant. In short, politics, not economics, seemed to be the foundation of right direction-wrong track beliefs.

Now I’m seeing something truly curious. Republican sentiment that we’re headed in the “right direction” is waning while Democrat beliefs remain stuck in a depressed wrong-track mode. What’s going on? Everyone seems to be a little disheartened about the direction of things.

One possibility is that economics and consumer sentiment have once again seized control of right-direction-or-wrong-track perceptions. Recent polls on consumer confidence seem to indicate that many Americans are getting anxious about the economy. Republicans are nervous about interest rates, immigration and other economic issues, while Democrats are still sore about outsourcing of jobs and tax cuts for the rich.

But there is one other possibility that’s entirely political in nature. I have suggested that one explanation for the 2000 surge in Republican right-direction sentiment was the victory of George W. Bush. Simultaneously, Democratic wrong-track opinions blossomed for exactly the same reason. In short, politics rather than economics were driving the bus. That may be where we are headed again.

Right-direction opinions may be losing ground because no one is really winning the political wars. Republicans surely see that our star has waned and that a congressional majority hasn’t produced the bumper crop of benefits that we once anticipated. But are Democrats sensing that the table is totally turned politically and that they are about to be returned to power? I think not. In fact, I believe that adherents of both parties are frustrated with their plights.

While both mainstream parties are down, they can simultaneously rejoice that “none of the above” will not be on many ballots this November. Incumbents in both parties will have trouble enough fending off challengers claiming we’re on the wrong track.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.

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