In January 2009, Republicans made what H.L. Mencken would have thought a sure bet. Based on current polls, Mencken and the GOP were wrong. (More)

Views from the Pews: Election Issues and Coverage (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature has looked at surveys from the Pew Research Center. Thursday we saw how Americans get their news, what news they look for, and what news sources they trust. Yesterday we considered surveys of Hispanic and Asian Americans. Today we conclude with surveys on the issues and coverage of the election.

The GOP’s cynical bet

Oft-quoted journalist and editor H.L. Mencken was a cynic, at least when it came to democracy and his fellow citizens. Among his most famous quotes:

Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance. No one in this world, so far as I know – and I have researched the records for years, and employed agents to help me – has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.

That has often been paraphrased as “No one ever went broke betting on the stupidity of the American people,” and that bromide seems to lie at the core of the GOP strategy over the past four years. Rush Limbaugh may have been the first to voice it on January 16, 2009 when, amidst still-emerging news of the worst financial collapse since the Great Depression, he announced “I hope [President Obama] fails.” Robert Draper reported that fifteen Republican leaders met for dinner on January 20, 2009 and agreed to “challenge [President Obama and Democrats] on every single bill and challenge them on every single campaign.” In February 2011, with unemployment still near 9% and told the federal budget cuts he demanded would cost still more jobs, House Speaker John Boehner was said “So be it.” And in October 2011, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell infamously boasted “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

The Republican Party seemed convinced that voters would apply a simple syllogism to the 2012 presidential election:

  • The U.S. economy is bad;
  • Barack Obama is President of the United States;
  • Therefore, Barack Obama is bad.

That syllogism ignores that financial collapses breed deeper and longer recessions than routine business cycle dips, that the president cannot command the economy, and that Republicans obstructed every attempt to ease and repair the damage. The strategy assumed voters would not know those facts, or would not care. Republicans were “betting on the stupidity of the American people.”

The people speak….

Much to Republicans’ dismay, recent polling suggests Mencken was wrong. A Pew Research survey last week found President Obama leading by 8 points among likely voters. Since 1988, only Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 had larger leads. What’s more, 74% of Obama supporters said they will be voting for him rather than against Mitt Romney, while 52% of Romney supporters said they will be voting against President Obama rather than for Romney. And 82% of Obama supporters say the president is likely to win the election, while only 53% of Romney supporters believe their candidate will win.

When asked for the main reason they support their candidates:

  • Obama Supporters – 70% cited his positions on the issues or his first-term record, 17% his personal qualities, and only 15% gave anti-Romney reasons.
  • Romney Supporters – 38% cited his positions on the issues, 19% his personal qualities, and 37% gave anti-Obama reasons.

And despite the sluggish recovery, 52% expressed “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of confidence in President Obama on economic issues versus 46% who said “not much” or “none.” Voters’ views on Mitt Romney, whose campaign is premised on his business expertise, were split 49-49. That finding is mirrored in a Washington Post conducted a week later in Ohio, where voters by a 50-43 margin trusted President Obama over Mitt Romney on the economy. The Pew survey found similar results on most issues:

Who we are and what we want….

Both President Obama and Mitt Romney agree the 2012 election presents a stark choice about who we are as a people, and what kind of society we want for each other. Fortunately, Americans are not as selfish as Romney and Republicans wish.

A Pew Research survey last week found that, while 71% of Americans believe poor people have become too dependent on government, 59% also government has a responsibility to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves, and 59% believe government should guarantee every citizen enough to eat and a place to sleep.

That same survey found that 58% of Americans believe the wealthy pay too little in taxes, while only 20% believe the poor pay too little and only 6% believe middle-income households pay too little, and only 38% believed middle- or low-income households pay too much in taxes. Perhaps worst for Romney, 71% of voters said his policies would help the wealthy while less than half said his policies would help middle- and low-income families.

By comparison, 50% of voters believe President Obama’s policies will help middle-income families, and 60% say he’ll help the poor. When one-third of Americans now self-identify as lower-middle or lower-class, voters’ belief that President Obama will help hard-working American families – while Romney will pamper billionaires and big corporations – may be the most important single issue in this election.

What about the media?

In a Pew Research survey this week, almost half (46%) of voters said the media had been fair to both President Obama and Mitt Romney. Among those who disagreed, voters were split 21-20 on whether the media had been too tough or too easy on Romney, while only 15% believed the media had been too tough on President Obama and 28% believed the media had been too easy.

Republicans were far more critical of the media, with 45% saying the media have been too tough on Romney and 60% saying the media have been too easy on President Obama. Only 29% of Democrats say the media have been too easy on Romney, and only 26% say the media have been too tough on President Obama.

And as we saw Thursday, more Americans trust their local television news and local newspapers than network or cable news or national newspapers, again with stark differences by party:

Perhaps that declining confidence in the mainstream media – who largely ignored the successes of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act – is why voters have not fallen for the GOP’s bet. The polls suggest voters recognize the causes and depth of the Great Recession, the limits of any president’s power to steer the economy, and the Republicans’ stubborn obstructionism.

If current polling holds through November 6th – and if grassroots Democratic activists do the groundwork – Mitt Romney and Republicans will have bet on the stupidity of American voters … and lost.


Happy Saturday!