by Andrew Kohut, President, Pew Research Center and Carroll Doherty, Associate Director, Pew Research Center for the People & the Press
As in previous years, public opinion played an important role in shaping many of 2007’s major news stories. This year, fewer dominant trends were carryovers from the preceding year and those that were assumed a somewhat different — and in the case of the Iraq war less pessimistic — cast. Economic concerns remained high on the public’s worry list but focused less exclusively on rising gasoline prices, and more on rising income inequality. Overall, the speed-up in the presidential primary season meant that politics claimed more of the public’s attention than is usually the case in a non-election year, and open races in both parties produced a number of surprises. A new generation began to put its mark on the society as views of marriage and parenthood continued to mutate. Muslim Americans continued to meld into the U.S. mainstream, but doubts about the future and feelings of racial divide were on the upswing among African Americans. Meanwhile the world cast an even more dubious eye on America but moved toward no consensus as to which country or countries would be a desirable counterbalancing power to U.S. hegemony.
Not all stories that claimed the attention of the mainstream media evoked equal public interest or responses. Veteran TV and movie actor Fred Thompson’s late-launched presidential bid, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’s truth-telling troubles, and rising concern about global warming all failed to move the public interest dial measurably in the end And while the Virginia Tech massacre drew wide immediate attention, neither it nor other bloody schoolyard happenings increased public support for gun control.
To capture these divergent measures, the Pew Research Center has compiled two separate lists: the top 15 stories in which public opinion played a significant role, and the most notable ‘non-barking dogs.’
The Top 15
1. A Sour Public Mood
Considerable public anxiety was in evidence in 2007. The proportion of Americans satisfied with national conditions hovered around 30%, as did President Bush’s performance ratings. Congress did even worse – its approval rating sank to 21% in August. The Supreme Court’s image fell as well, fallout from the public’s anti-Washington sentiment.1
2. A Political Landscape Favoring Democrats
Democrats headed into the presidential election year heartened by a mostly congenial political landscape. Fully half of Americans (50%) identified with or leaned toward the Democratic Party, compared with just 36% who affiliated with the Republican Party. Pew’s biennial political values survey showed increased public support for a government safety net, growing concern about income inequality, and diminished support for an assertive national security policy.
However, the news was not altogether positive for Democratic politicians who owe much of their relative popularity less to their own successes than to the unpopular performance of Republican officeholders and aspirants. Ratings of Democratic congressional leaders are no better than they were for GOP leaders in 2006, shortly before their party lost the majority. Most people are still happy that the Democrats gained control of Congress, but that feeling may not endure if gridlock persists on Capitol Hill.2
3. GOP Blues
Not only has the Republican Party lost ground to the Democrats in partisan affiliation, on image and on issues, but grumbling emerged among rank-and-file Republicans over the quality of the GOP presidential field and the party’s adherence to conservative principles. Nationally, 69% of likely Democratic voters rate their party’s candidates as good or excellent compared with 60% of Republican voters. And just 36% of Republican voters say their party does a good job of advocating conservative positions, down 21 points since 2003.3
4. Huck of a Surprise
In February, just 3% of Republican voters said there was a “good chance” they would vote for the former Arkansas governor, placing him behind Sam Brownback, Jim Gilmore and Tommy Thompson. Those three one-time candidates have all vanished from the field, but Huckabee is still there. In fact, by year’s end, Huckabee’s support was surging in Iowa and in the national polls. Huckabee’s strength among white Republican evangelicals – and GOP voters’ rather lukewarm support of the other candidates – propelled him to the top tier. But will he stay there when the nomination fight moves to a much broader stage on Feb. 5? The latest CBS/NYT nationwide poll of Republicans showing him now tied with Rudy Giuliani suggests the answer to that question may well be yes.4
5. Coronation Interrupted
For most of 2007, Hillary Clinton was the clear frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination. The New York senator forged to the lead in spite of her relatively high unfavorable ratings. And from April to August, Clinton’s lead over Barack Obama, her closest rival, doubled in Pew’s national survey. Yet by year’s end, Clinton found herself in a fierce battle with Obama in the all-important early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire. Overwhelmingly, voters viewed Clinton as “tough” – an indispensable quality for a president in the post-9/11 world. But only about half described her as “trustworthy.” Moreover, what had been perhaps Clinton’s greatest advantage – the belief that she could win in 2008 – was valued less by Democratic voters than it was four years earlier.5
6. Unease about Mormons
Perhaps if Mitt Romney had never run for president, or were a marginal candidate, questions about his religion would not have assumed such importance. But with Romney mounting a serious bid for the GOP nomination, the unease that many Americans feel about Mormonism and its beliefs became a major political issue. Most Americans feel that their own religion has little in common with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. More problematic for Romney, just 52% of the public – and just 40% of white evangelical Protestants – believe that Mormons are Christians. In a measure of his concern over these attitudes, Romney felt the need to give a high-profile speech on religion less than a month before the Iowa caucuses.6
7. A Better View of Iraq, Up to a Point…
For years, public views of the war in Iraq were increasingly negative and seemingly unlikely to change direction. But as the troop surge resulted in lower levels of violence in Iraq, public perceptions of the war improved markedly. In November, 48% of Americans said things were going very or fairly well in Iraq, up 18 points from February. However, improved public impressions of the Iraq did nothing to lift war support: 54% favored bringing the troops home as soon as possible, a proportion largely unchanged from earlier in the year.7
8. Optimism about Black Progress at 24-Year Low
For the first time in the nation’s history, an African American was a serious contender for the White House. Despite that symbolic milestone, and more tangible signs of black progress, a major Pew study found blacks less upbeat about the state of black America than at any time since 1983. Looking ahead, fewer than half of all blacks (44%) said they think life for blacks will get better in the future, down from the 57% who said so in a 1986 survey. African Americans also see a widening gap between the values of middle class and poor blacks, and nearly four-in-ten say that because of the diversity within their community, blacks can no longer be thought of as a single race.8
9. Income Inequality Concerns Rise
Public attitudes about the economy were battered by a series of crises – increasing mortgage foreclosures, a credit crunch, stock market gyrations and rising energy costs. Yet a more fundamental shift in economic opinions also was evident in 2007: a growing proportion of the public said that America was divided between economic “haves” and the “have-nots.” In addition, an increasing number of Americans placed themselves in the “have-not” category. Other signs of rising perceptions of economic inequality include the finding that fully 73% of Americans — the highest proportion in 15 years — agree with the statement “Today it’s really true that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”9
10. America’s Mainstream Muslims
Most Muslim-Americans are relative newcomers to the United States, but a comprehensive survey of U.S. Muslims found them to be largely assimilated, happy with their lives, holding a positive view of American society and placing a high value on hard work. At the same time, Muslim Americans are highly critical of America’s anti-terrorism policies. However, absolute levels of support for Islamic extremism among Muslim Americans are quite low, especially when compared with Muslims around the world. Overall, 8% of Muslim Americans say suicide bombings against civilians are often or sometimes justified in the defense of Islam.10
11. Gen Next: Democratic, Tech Savvy and Tattooed
They have come of age in the era of Osama, iPods and MySpace. They are both more digitized and politically liberal than their elders. Meet “Generation Next,” those between the ages of 18 and 25. Like previous generations of young people, they are upbeat and optimistic. They are also the most tolerant of any generation on such social issues as immigration, race and homosexuality. Today’s young people are much more likely to identify with the Democratic Party than was the preceding generation, but their potential political impact could be blunted if, like previous groups of young people, they fail to fully engage with the nation’s civic and political life.11
12. A Happier Planet
The Pew Global Attitude Project’s 47-nation survey found striking increases in satisfaction with life, family incomes and feelings of personal progress in countries where economic growth has been strong. Publics in Latin America and Eastern Europe – where GDP growth has been most impressive – now rate their lives and national conditions far more favorably than they did in 2002. More generally, the survey showed a clear linkage between real economic growth and views of national conditions, even in countries where poverty rates are high.12
13. Discontent with Global Powers
The news about America’s global image was less positive – anti-Americanism remains pervasive, as it has since 2002. However, the United States does not stand alone as an unpopular world power: China’s image has fallen, while favorable views of Russian President Vladimir Putin have declined sharply.13
14. Marriage and Parenthood Less Closely Linked
Over the past generation, the bonds between marriage and parenthood have weakened. Just 41% of Americans now say that children are “very important” to a marriage, down from 65% in 1990. Equally striking, children have fallen to No. 8 on a list of nine items that people associate with successful marriages – well behind “faithfulness,” a “happy sexual relationship,” and even “sharing household chores.”14
15. No Smarter, No Dumber
The internet was supposed to revolutionize the way Americans get their news and make them much more knowledgeable about current affairs. Wrong. On average, today’s citizens are about as able to name their leaders, and are about as aware of major news events, as was the public nearly 20 years ago. The good news is that at least Americans do not know any less than they did two decades ago.15
Dogs that didn’t bark
1. Thompson’s Troubles
The veteran TV and movie actor created a stir when he first revealed possible interest in a presidential run. In June, fully 37% of Republican voters said there was a “good chance” they would vote for Thompson, as many as said that about GOP frontrunner Rudy Giuliani. By December, Thompson was mired in the middle of the pack in Iowa and New Hampshire. And in a national survey in September, he was the major Republican candidate that the public identified least with the word “energetic.”16
2. Alberto Who?
Washington scandals seldom draw a great deal of public interest, but the public was particularly indifferent when it came to the fate of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Under fire for his role in the firings of eight U.S. attorneys, and other controversies related to the war on terror, Gonzales was an early target of the new Democratic Congress. Yet Gonzalez’s actions evoked neither much public outrage, nor much public support for the embattled attorney general. When asked in April whether Gonzales should lose his job, a large percentage of Americans – 42% — simply declined to answer. He stepped down, quietly, in September.17
3. Gun control
Nearly a decade ago, the shootings at Columbine High School resulted in greater public support for gun control, culminating in the “Million Mom March” aimed at passing stiffer gun laws. The public had a far different reaction to the April shootings at Virginia Tech University, the worst school shootings in U.S. history. A survey conducted days after the massacre found that just 37% of Americans favored a ban on handgun sales, down 10 points from 2000.18
4. Cooling Concern
Global warming became a much more visible issue in 2007. Former Vice President Al Gore’s crusade against what he calls a “planetary emergency” won him an Academy Award and a Nobel Prize. Yet the American public is not fully persuaded that global climate change is an imminent problem. Fewer than half rate global warming as a “very serious” problem; among those who view it as a problem, only a modest majority (55%) says it requires immediate government action. For liberal Democrats, at least, the environment is a top tier issue in the 2008 campaign. But it rates as far less important for other voting groups, including conservative and moderate Democrats. However, the 47-nation Global Attitudes poll found rising concern about environmental and pollution problems around the world, with many nations blaming the United States for these heightened global threats.19
6Find more on public attitudes toward Mormons here.
7Find more on attitudes toward Iraq here.
8Find the survey on changing racial attitudes here.
10Read more about American Muslims here.
11Read more about Gen Next here.
14Read more about trends in marriage and parenthood here.
15Read more about the way the U.S. public gets its news and what it learns from it here.
17Find more about public reactions to Gonzales and other contemporaneous stories in the news here.
18For public reactions to Virginia Tech massacre see.