There's a growing body of evidence that the country is in a dark and pessimistic mood, and that the 2012 campaign will be extremely volatile, subject to many twists and turns. The latest example comes from the esteemed pollster Peter Hart, who says unsettled Americans are looking for leaders who are "on their side, and currently they are finding very few people, companies and institutions that qualify."
"This election feels fundamentally more negative and there is a disquieting mood among the voters," Hart says in a new analysis of the public mood a year before the balloting. "Gone is the positive energy of hope that marked 2008, and it has been replaced by the negative energy of fear, anger and dismay."
Asked for their assessment of "where things are," voters use negative terms such as "scary," "on the brink," "horrible," "stuck," and "frightened." Hart says 54 per cent of Americans feel that the country is at the beginning of a long-term decline, and 44 per cent say the worst of the recession is yet to come. Seventy-six per cent agree with the statement that "the current economic structure of the country is out of balance and favors a small proportion of the rich over the rest of the country."
Hart, a Democrat, says both President Obama and Republican front runner Mitt Romney still have a lot to prove to voters.
Obama has shown strong long-term support from about 44 per cent of the electorate. At the same time, he suffers from "the lack of a focused image of leadership and strength." Seventy per cent of Americans say he has fallen short of their expectations that he would change business as usual in Washington and improve oversight of Wall Street. "This president does not emerge with a central image or core set of values to the voters," Hart says.
When asked who Obama would have been in their fifth-grade class, voters in a focus group said, "hard worker," "teacher's pet," "know it all, "All-American kid," and "the loner." "The challenge here is not whether a specific element is wrong with Barack Obama's image, but that he does not have one single image," Hart explains. "He is everyone and no one.
As for Romney, who is at or near the top of most polls of Republican voters, there is "one incredibly important element," Hart says, "and this has to do with linkage and likeabililty. When asked in the focus group who Romney would have been in their fifth-grade class, participants' consensus answer was 'the rich privileged kid."
Romney, a wealthy businessman and the former governor of Massachusetts, seems "smart and prepared, but at the outset, there appears to be a gulf between him and the average voter," Hart notes. "He has a year to deal with this, but clearly this is not the year to appear to be the prototype of a 'Wall Street' Republican."
In a telling indication of how polarized the country has become, 28 per cent of Americans consider themselves supporters of the liberal "Occupy Wall Street" movement, and 25 per cent consider themselves supporters of the conservative Tea Party movement.
Hart's analysis is based on a new focus group in Cincinnati, Ohio and his company's latest polling conducted jointly with Public Opinion Strategies for NBC and the Wall Street Journal.