In general, are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States at this time?

Gallup poll results
Satisfaction with the United States

| Much of the commentary about this election has cited the high level of dissatisfaction with the general direction of the country, often characterized by saying that people feel the country is on the "wrong track," and use this as an explanation how Donald Trump can possibly be doing as well as he is.

I decided to look into this right-track/wrong-track statistic to see what's there besides the obvious conclusion that people are unhappy at the present time. As it happens, Gallup has on their website 30 years of data for the response to the question, "In general, are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States at this time?" Gallup very helpfully provides the chart above, showing the percentage of people polled who say they are satisfied with the direction of the country. In the poll conducted August 3–7, 2016, only 27% said they were satisfied.

It should be no surprise that the lowest satisfaction ratings coincide with periods of extraordinary financial turmoil:

But the thing that has been gnawing at me is the sense that maybe low satisfaction ratings are more the rule than the exception. So, I took the Gallup data and plotted satisfaction and dissatisfaction by year. Gallup now asks that question quite frequently, so I took a simple average of the results for each year in the data.

Yearly averages
Satisfied vs dissatisfied, by year

Now, this chart is essentially the equivalent of the chart at the top of the page, except that the dissatisfaction rate is also plotted. Now we see something interesting: Over most of the past 35 years, dissatisfaction has been higher than satisfaction! The only exceptions are in the mid-1980s and the end of the 1990s. The sustained period of rising satisfaction from 1992 to 2000 coincides with the administration of Bill Clinton; satisfaction began to plummet after the dot-com bubble burst and George W Bush was elected in 2000. The absolute nadir was reached in 2008 with the collapse of the global financial system. Since then satisfaction has been creeping slowly upward but remains far below the level of dissatisfaction (72% in the Aug 3–7, 2016 poll).

I then thought to overlay the presidents during this time period.

Satisfied vs dissatisfied during presidential terms
Satisfaction and dissatisfaction related to presidential terms

Poor Jimmy Carter had the misfortune to be in office during the oil embargo and resulting gas shortages, as well as the taking of US hostages by Iran. No wonder his dissatisfaction ratings are so high.

Looking at this analysis, we can see why the Republicans so frequently evoke Ronald Reagan because the country responded favorably, at least during his first term and partly into his second. The return of American hostages gave morale a boost, and the end of the Cold War gave hope. But then dissatisfaction once again crossed above satisfaction and remained that way during the term of GHW Bush.

It's also easy to see why Democrates so frequently evoke the Clinton years, because they were marked with increasing satisfaction, at least until the dot-com bubble burst.

Putting the term of GW Bush into context, it's also not hard to see why the country became less and less satisfied: the misadventure in Iraq and the financial melt-down sealed his fate.

And poor Barack Obama had to preside over bank bailouts and the rescue of the auto industry, as well as work, for most of his two terms, opposed by the craven opposition of House and Senate Republicans determined to thwart his every move. Despite the opposition, he did manage to accomplish a lot, acknowledged here in the slowly rising rate of satisfaction and elsewhere in his own approval ratings which are now about 50%

In conclusion

Using the "wrong-track" ratings as an explanation for political success/failure is probably specious. I'm not at all sure what people are thinking of when asked about "the way things are going" in the country. How are people to answer that question? They know how their own life is going — whether they are employed, whether they've gotten a raise, whether they like their neighbors, etc. But their view of their own communities and the country at large are shaped to a great degree, I believe, by the drumbeat of crime reports on local news and the proliferation of "breaking news" on cable television which make it seem like they live in a very menacing environment, when in fact they don't. As Mark Twain famously said, "It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so."

Last updated on Apr 13, 2018

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