Americans still riding wrong track

Americans are proving to be a cantankerous lot. The anticipated turnaround in the nation’s mood has not occurred, despite the election of a new president who ostensibly represented hope and a new direction for so many in this country.

Despite Barack Obama’s election, measures of the nation’s mood languish. A December poll for The Associated Press-GfK — taken a full month after Obama’s historic election — found that just 32 percent of Americans believe the country is headed in the right direction. The cross-tabs had the real shocker, though. Just four in 10 Democrats are positive about the direction we’re going.

These are not isolated results. Other national and state polls show much the same. A December Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll found that almost two-thirds of Americans believe that the country is headed in the wrong direction, despite a finding in the same poll that “nearly three-quarters of those surveyed feel positive about Obama’s election.”

The Reuters/Zogby Index of American Confidence fell in December to 90.5, almost seven points below the December 2007 Index score. A mid-December EPIC-MRA poll found that 76 percent of Michiganders see the nation on the wrong track, only slightly better than the 81 percent who see their own state going wrong. I recently polled Floridians and found that only 23 percent felt that things in that state are headed in the right direction. In Obama’s own home state, a Dec. 15 poll by McLaughlin & Associates found that only 14 percent of Illinois voters think that things there are going in the right direction.

On the other side of the ledger, it should be noted that the mood is somewhat improved elsewhere, and that in several Western climes positive sentiment about the direction of a single state actually enjoys plurality status. But mostly, we’re seeing Americans in a bad mood.

These unanticipated, quirky results suggest that the mood of Americans is a mysterious stew that may be incoherent. Or it may be that we just don’t have the tools in our pollster kit to measure mood in a way that makes sense.

You are saying, of course, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Yes, there is little doubt that the recession is taking its toll on the American mood. Or you can blame the Illinois results on the Rod Blagojevich scandal. But shouldn’t that golden moment when America’s favorite new rock star was elected convince people, at a minimum, that we are finally headed in the right direction? The mood questions don’t imply that we “are there, having arrived at our final destination of prosperity and good government,” nor that Americans should be fully satisfied. No, the questions just inquire about direction.

The answer to this conundrum may have been revealed last August in a nice piece of analysis published in an online journal, SurveyPractice.org. Two University of Cincinnati political scientists — the esteemed George Bishop and a colleague — did an analysis of the Gallup “mood of the country” question and revisited the work of other academics on these sorts of queries. They concluded, as have others, that even standardized questions like “Right Direction-Wrong Track” have different meanings to different respondents at different points in time. The professors conclude:

“Because its meaning-and-interpretation is continuously shifting over time, comparisons of the ‘mood of the country’ indicator over time become essentially invalid. One is not comparing an apple to an apple. To that extent, [standard questions about the mood of the country are] an ambiguous and potentially misleading indicator of American public opinion.”

Obama’s political team better hope they are right and that today’s wrong-track sentiment is not the same as under George Bush. If the nation’s mood remains dour, I am betting that even someone with Obama’s initial luster will get tarnished eventually.

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