May 21, 2009

Independents Take Center Stage in Obama Era

Section 8: Politics and Political Participation

The public continues to express considerable cynicism about politics and elected officials. More than three-quarters (76%) agree that “elected officials in Washington lose touch with the people pretty quickly.” More than half (51%) agree that “people like me don’t have any say about what the government does.”

Overall public opinion about these questions has not changed much in recent years. As is the case with views about government performance and the social safety net, however, bottom-line stability obscures substantial political and demographic movement. Much of this change has taken place over the last two years and is mostly a response to the change of political leadership in Washington.

On balance, Democrats have become more positive toward government, while Republicans have turned negative – a partisan pattern that is consistent with past changes in power in Washington. Moreover, young people and blacks – key elements of President Obama’s winning coalition last fall – express much more positive views of politics and government than they have in recent years.

Despite having low regard for the responsiveness of elected officials, the public still overwhelmingly believes that voting gives people a voice in politics. Nearly seven-in-ten (68%) agree that “voting gives people like me some say about how government runs things.” This sentiment is shared across partisan lines, though fewer Republicans express this view than in 2007. And on several key measures relating to voting and political participation, blacks and young people express more positive opinions than at any point in the 22 years of Pew Research values polling.

Blacks More Positive about Politics

Overall, just 38% agree that “most elected officials care what people like me think.” But nearly half of non-Hispanic African Americans (47%) agree with this statement – the highest percentage in two decades. In 2007, just 36% of blacks expressed this view. By contrast, opinion among non-Hispanic whites has changed little over the past two years (35% currently). As a consequence, African Americans are now significantly more likely than whites to believe that elected officials care about their opinions – the first time this has occurred in a values survey.

The shifts in African Americans’ attitudes about voting are even more dramatic. For the first time in a values survey, more blacks than whites agree that “voting gives people like me some say about how government runs things.” Three-quarters of African Americans (75%) express this view, up from 63% two years ago. About two-thirds of whites (66%) believe that voting gives people like them a say in government, down from 73% in 2007.

As in the past, an overwhelming percentage of the public (90%) agrees with this statement: “I feel it’s my duty as a citizen to always vote;” this figure has changed little over the past two decades. However, the percentage that completely agrees with this statement has increased – from 61% in 2003 to 69% currently. The proportion of blacks completely agreeing that voting is a duty has increased over this period by 14 points, from 63% in 2003. The share of whites completely agreeing has risen by eight points (from 62% to 70%).

Young People Less Cynical

Young people hold more positive opinions about elected officials and a greater sense of duty to vote than they have in the recent past. Currently, 43% of those younger than 30 say that officials care what people like them think, up from 35% in 2007. People in this age group are now more likely than those over 30 to say that officials care about what people like them think. Two years ago, there were no significant age differences on this question. Similarly, there has been a nine-point decline in the proportion of young people who say elected officials quickly “lose touch” with the people, while the opinions of those over 30 on this question have not changed significantly.

A greater percentage of young people also now feel a sense of obligation to participate in politics by voting. Roughly six-in-ten of those younger than 30 (61%) now completely agree that “it’s my duty as a citizen to always vote;” in 2007, fewer than half of those in this age group (46%) completely agreed with this statement. As in the past, young people are less likely than older Americans to express this sentiment, but the gap has narrowed considerably.

Similarly, 63% of those younger than 30 say they feel guilty when they don’t get a chance to vote. That is little changed from 2007 (61%), but significantly greater than the percentage saying this in 2003 (54%).

Partisan Changes in Views of Politics

The shifting opinions about politics and government among blacks and young people – two strongly Democratic groups – mirror the changes among Democrats generally. In 2007, only a third of Democrats (33%) agreed that most elected officials care what people like “me” think. In the current survey, 48% of Democrats agree with this statement, an all-time high in a values survey. Democrats are also less likely to say that elected officials quickly lose touch with the people than at any point in the last 22 years.

By contrast, Republican views of elected officials have soured significantly. More Republicans (86%) now say that officials in Washington lose touch with the people pretty quickly than at any time since 1994, the last period when Democrats controlled both the White House and Congress. Similarly, only about a third of Republicans (34%) now say that elected officials care what “people like me think;” in 2002, a majority of Republicans (54%) said elected officials care about what people like them think.

Moreover, the share of Republicans who agree that “people like me” have no say in what the government does has jumped from 40% in 2007 to 54% today. Additionally, for the first time, Democrats are significantly more likely than Republicans to say that voting gives them some say in how the government runs things (76% of Democrats vs. 70% of Republicans).

As partisans’ attitudes about politics have changed, the opinions of political independents have been relatively stable. Independents have typically been pessimistic about politics and voting, and the change of power in Washington has not significantly changed these views.

Interest in Politics Flat

Public interest in national affairs and local politics remains high, but appears to have been little changed by the 2008 presidential election. Nearly nine-in-ten (88%) say they are interested in keeping up with national affairs (50% completely agree). That is on par with the share expressing this view over the course of the past decade.

About eight-in-ten (78%) say they are pretty interested in following local politics. Over most of the last two decades, Republicans and Democrats have expressed more interest in both national affairs and local politics than have political independents. And while older Americans are somewhat more likely than younger people to express interest in public affairs, the age gap has narrowed steadily over the past decade.

The public’s interest in national affairs and local politics largely comports with the belief that issues discussed in Washington have some effect on them personally. More than seven-in-ten (72%) disagree with the statement: “most issues discussed in Washington don’t affect me personally.” Since 2003, a greater share of the public has disagreed with this statement than in the past.

Voting Attitudes and Behavior

A clear majority of the public continues to view voting as a civic duty. Nine-in-ten (90%) agree that it is their duty as a citizen to always vote (69% completely agree). Nonetheless, people do not always live up to their own expectations of civic duty. Just over half (51%) report always voting, another 21% say they nearly always vote, 9% vote part of the time, and 19% say they vote seldom, never or offer some other response. The current survey, conducted just a few months after the 2008 election, shows an increase in the proportion saying they always vote (from 45% in 2007 to 51% currently).

Just 36% of those under 30 say they always vote, despite a marked increase in the share of those in this age group who consider voting a duty; still, the proportion of young people saying they always vote has increased since 2007 (from 25%). Independents (43%), those with no college experience (42%), and those with household incomes under $30,000 a year (39%) are also among those least likely to report always voting.

At the other end of the spectrum, Republicans and Democrats, older people and those with higher incomes and greater education are among those most likely to say they always vote.