When taking the temperature of the public’s outlook about the overall state of the nation, most pollsters use one of two time-tested approaches: Asking people how “satisfied” they are with the way things are going in the country or asking people to say whether the country is headed in the “right direction” or is on the “wrong track.” The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Gallup Organization rely on the measure of satisfaction, while major broadcast networks and their print partners (ABC/Washington Post, CBS/New York Times, NBC/Wall Street Journal) ask the public whether the country is headed in the right direction or on the wrong track.
Over most of the past two decades, these two measures tended to offer the same general results — when the public’s mood is bright, both move up, and when things look gloomy both move down. But occasionally these measures diverge, and since last fall’s election, the percentage saying the country is generally headed in the right direction has consistently surpassed the percentage expressing satisfaction with national conditions. In early March, nearly twice as many people said the country was moving in the right direction as said they were satisfied with the way things are going in the country. Reflecting their positive views of President Obama, Democrats are now much more positive than Republicans about the country’s course, and are much more optimistic than they were before the election.
The divergence between these measures is unusual, though not unprecedented. Since July 1990, measures of satisfaction (from Gallup) and measures of whether the nation is headed in the “right direction” or is on the “wrong track” (from NBC/Wall Street Journal) have regularly been asked on similarly timed polls, allowing for an over-time comparison of these two questions about public perceptions about the state of the nation.1 Over this 19-year period, results of these two organizations’ questions have typically tracked very closely: Gallup’s measures of public satisfaction with the way things are going in the United States largely mirror NBC/WSJ ‘s measures of public views that the nation is headed in the “right direction.” But there have been a few periods following major events, such as last fall’s election, when public responses to these two different questions have diverged significantly.
Post-Election Rise in ‘Right Direction’
Prior to the election, both measures of opinion about the state of the nation had hit record lows: In October, only 7% said they were satisfied with the way things were going, while just 12% said the country was headed in the right direction.2 Since then, both assessments of the state of the nation have shown improvement, but the increase has been far greater in the percentage saying the country is headed in the right direction. By early March, 41% of Americans said the country is headed in the right direction compared with just 20% who said they are satisfied with the way things are going in the nation.
In the last 19 years, the only prior instances when the “right direction” measure significantly surpassed the “satisfaction” measure were in February 1991, near the end of the first Iraq war (by 11 points), in January 1993, around the time of Bill Clinton’s first inauguration (by 18 points) and in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks (by 11 points).
Historically, a significant gap in this direction is far less common than the reverse. In the second half of 1991, as the economy deteroriated, the percentage saying they were satisfied with national conditions significantly outpaced the percentage saying the country was headed in the right direction. In the final years of the Clinton administration (March 1998 through January 2001), a period marked by particularly high levels of satisfaction overall, public beliefs that the country was headed in the right direction consistently lagged behind overall satisfaction. This gap was most pronounced in January 1999 in the midst of Clinton’s impeachment trial: At that time, 70% said they were satisfied with the way things were going in the country (among the highest percentages in the 19-year period), while 49% said they felt the country was headed in the right direction.
Partisan Differences Fuel Wider Gap
The unusually large gap between the two measures since the 2008 election is attributable to substantial partisan differences over the right direction/wrong track question.
In early March, 66% of Democrats said that the country is headed in the right direction. That compared with 35% of independents and just 11% of Republicans. The partisan differences were much smaller in views of national satisfaction. Slightly more than a quarter of Democrats (27%) said they were satisfied with the way things are going, compared with 20% of independents and 11% of Republicans.
Since Barack Obama was elected in November, Democrats have become increasingly optimistic about the direction of the country. In October, just 4% of Democrats believed the country was heading in the right direction; by December, more than three-in-ten (32%) were optimistic about the country’s direction. In the first NBC/WSJ poll conducted after Obama’s inauguration, two-thirds of Democrats (66%) said the country was headed in the right direction. Over this five-month period, Democratic levels of satisfaction have also increased, but less so (from a low of 2% in October to 27% in early March).
Republican opinion, by contrast, has followed a different pattern. Satisfaction levels among Republicans in early March were about the same as in October, while fewer now say the country is headed in the right direction (11% compared with 21% in October). Independent assessments of the state of the nation have become more positive on both measures since the election.
1. Polls included here are those NBC/WSJ and Gallup polls concluded within 15 days of one another (this time period was chosen because of both measures’ high sensitivity to short-term events). Gallup has regularly asked a version of the satisfaction measure since 1979, while NBC has asked a version of the “right direction”/”wrong track” question since 1989. Trend points when the two questions do not have comparable dates are not shown.
2. The 2008 NBC/WSJ measure is based on registered voters.