Hold the celebration, pollsters say electorate wants problems fixed

Not so fast, Oregon Democrats. Your mandate is not as big as you think.

That’s one conclusion drawn from a sobering post-election poll by Fox 12 and Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Despite the big gains made by Democrats in November’s general election, the poll found that most Oregon voters were not enthusiastic about the party’s candidates and believe the entire political system is broken.

“I have never seen the voters so negative. They believe the entire political system needs to be fixed,” says Adam Davis, co-founder of Davis, Hibbitts, Midghall Inc., the Portland firm that conducted the poll.

It is easy to assume most Oregon voters rallied behind behind the Democratic Party on election night. President Obama beat Republican challenger former Gov. Mitt Romney, all statewide and Congressional Democrats on the ballot were re-elected and Democrats ended the even split and took control of the Oregon House of Representatives.

News coverage of election night reinforced the impression of enthusiastic Democratic support. Televisions crews descended on the downtown Hilton Hotel when the state party and its backers held their celebration on the evening of Nov. 6.

But most voters were apparently not celebrating the election, according to the poll of 500 voters conducted between Nov. 9 and 12. The poll found the majority — 58 percent — agree that: “The political system is broken and really needs to be fixed.”

A full 46 percent “strongly agree” with that statement.

Only 38 percent agree that: “Our political system may not be perfect but it works pretty well as is.”

Four percent did not answer the question.

A huge chunk of Oregon voters were disappointed by the election. Asked to describe it, 39 percent of voters said the election was a “disappointing failure” that left them with a “negative impression.” Only 21 percent said it was “great” or “fantastic” and left them with a “positive impressive.”

The rest used terms like “long,” “boring,” “uneventful” or “close.” A few said “successful” or refused to answer the question.

Most voters were not thrilled by the candidates on the ballot. A majority — 54 percent — agreed that: “For most political races it was a choice between the lesser of two evils.” Only 40 percent chose, “Most political races offered us good choices.” The remaining 6 percent did not answer the question.

After the election, a number of Democrats and their supporters offered theories on why they did so well in the election. Popular ones included high turnout by voters motivated by women’s issues and health care issues.

But the poll shows the only significant block of voters — 33 percent — said they were primarily motivated by the economy and jobs. All other issues — including abortion, health care and education — were listed as the first or second most important issues by 10 percent or fewer voters.

Despite their negative attitudes, most voters are hopeful that Gov. John Kitzhaber and the 2013 Legislature can make significant progress on the key issues facing the state. A full 66 percent are either “somewhat” or “very” optimistic progress can be made, while only 32 percent are “not very” or “not at all” optimistic.

Making things better

Davis is not surprised by how negative most Oregon voters are feeling. He and his DHM associates have watched voters grow more disillusioned with government over the years. These feelings have been revealed both in the polls conducted by the firm and in focus groups it holds with Oregon citizens on behalf of various clients.

Davis has even taken to giving PowerPoint presentations on the political climate to clients. In late October, he listed the many reasons voters were so unhappy, including the persistently poor economy that has resulted in Oregon having the highest rates of childhood hunger and homelessness. Voters are feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of difficult problems facing them, Davis says, ranging from the ongoing Afghanistan war to the state Public Employee Retirement System.

One PowerPoint slide was simply filled with names of such unending problems as “Future of Social Security and Medicare,” “Traffic Congestion,” “Forest Clearcutting,” High School Dropout Rates” and “Deteriorating Transportation, Water & Sewer Systems.”

“People are feeling overwhelmed by problems that never seem to get solved,” says Davis.

According to Davis, that is one reason people believe the entire political system is broken and needs to be fixed. By political system, Davis does not simply mean elections that don’t seem to offer enough good choices. He means everything from the high cost of campaigns to the personal attacks in negative advertisements and general lack of civility.

And Davis believes the media are part of the problem. One PowerPoint slide notes that there is less coverage of state and local government and politics than in the past, and that much of it is superficial or sensational.

“People feel very strongly that everything about the political system needs to be fixed, not just campaign finance reform,” says Davis.

As Davis sees it, education is the key to change, not just in the school system but at home. Many voters simply don’t know how government works or see how it affects their lives.

“We need to elevate the importance of civics, history and geography. And it’s not just the job of the public school teachers, but it has to happen at home, too, with parents and aunts and uncles and grandparents. The problem is multi-dimensional and it requires everyone focusing on how to make things better,” says Davis.

Rejecting Romney

Even though Obama received more than 54 percent of the statewide vote, only 43 percent told pollsters the election was actually an “endorsement” of him. A significant block — 37 percent — characterized the results as a “rejection” of Romney.

Twenty percent did not answer the question.

At the same time, 49 percent of voters said Obama won on his ideas or a combination of his ideas and campaign tactics. Only 18 percent said Obama won solely on his campaign tactics.

But that does not mean most Oregon voters support the Democratic Party platform. A full 57 percent would rather the government address the debt before it spends more money. Only 36 percent agree the government should spend money to create jobs first, which many Democrats advocated during the election.

By a wide margin, Oregon voters favor a balanced approach to addressing the national debt. A majority — 52 percent — favor a combination of tax increases and spending cuts. Twenty-nine percent favor spending cuts alone, primarily in entitlement programs.

Only 15 percent favor tax increases alone, primarily on higher earners.

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