As we officially enter autumn, it is clear that voters’ long tempestuous relationship with their elected officials may be heading for a break-up. This has been the summer of our discontent. Take, for example, that:

  • 71 percent of Americans say the country is off on the wrong track;
  • 76 percent predict that the next generation will not be better off than they are;
  • 79 percent are dissatisfied with our political system; and
  • 60 percent go so far as to say that America is in a state of decline.

While some of this is clearly due to lingering concern about the economy – 49 percent say we are still in a recession – recent focus groups with swing voters clearly indicates that our collective angst touches on far more than that. We are edging back to the bottom of Maslow, as security has once again entered voters’ concerns. Fully 94 percent of Americans report having seen something about the videotaped ISIS beheadings of two Americans, according to the September NBC Wall Street Journal survey conducted by POS Partner Bill McInturff and Democratic pollster Fred Yang. That’s the highest awareness of any news story they have tested in the last five years. In other words, more Americans report knowing about this issue than have been aware of Obamacare or anything else being featured in a political ad this fall.

What does this angst mean come November? Well, first, incumbents should keep in mind that the traditional mental separation between institution and the person holding the office has diminished dramatically over time. Gone are the days when voters hated Congress, but loved their Member of Congress:

 chart 1

Second, voters have a message for the winners in November: get to work. One swing voter woman in our focus groups this past summer shared that she worked two jobs, and just wanted to see the people she elects work half as hard as she does. And, despite the renewed anxiety about national security issues, they want to know first and foremost that elected officials are working hard for the people here at home. These themes clearly pop out in the graphic representing the key themes voiced when asked “If you could send one message with your vote this year so the people who win the election know what you mean with your vote, what would that message be?” in the September NBC Wall Street Journal survey.

Chart 2

It’s worth noting that in qualitative research we conducted last year, voters loved the idea of compromise – until it violated their position on a specific issue. Then they wanted a “leader of principle” who would “stick to his or her positions.” So, voters’ sentimental notions about “bipartisan progress” may be just as easily cast aside as a summer fling.

Public Opinion Strategies