Does "Right Direction/Wrong Track" matter?

William JordanUS Elections Editor
August 12, 2016, 12:06 PM GMT+0

A majority of the public thinks the country is “off on the wrong track”. That doesn’t tell us much.

Americans are worried about their country, there’s no denying it.

In the latest YouGov/Economist Poll, more than 6 in 10 Americans say the country is “off on the wrong track”, more than double the number who think the country is “generally headed in the right direction”. It’s also a higher number than during most of Obama’s presidency, including during Obama’s own post-convention period in 2012, and Hillary Clinton is running a continuity campaign against a candidate who voters think will “shake things up in Washington”.

The "right direction/wrong track" question is one pollsters have used for decades, and high "wrong track" numbers are often perceived as bad omens for politicians who represent the status quo. But Democrats in office probably don’t need to worry too much about the widespread dissatisfaction with the way things are going in the country – because not everyone blames them.

Specifically, many of the people who say the country is on the wrong track don’t lay much blame at the feet of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or Democrats in Congress. In fact, according to data from a recent YouGov/Economist Poll, only about 44% of Americans are both dissatisfied with the way things are going and also blame the Democrats “a lot” for the state of things. That includes 22% who also blame the Republicans or Donald Trump alongside the Democrats.

Put another way, a total of 61% either believe things are heading in the right direction (29%) or believe things are headed in the wrong direction but include Republicans on the list of those they blame "a lot".

One explanation is that the elevated “wrong track” numbers are related to growing partisan polarization, combined with continued perceptions of government gridlock, particularly in Congress.

Thirty-eight percent of Democrats see things headed in the wrong direction, but less than half of those Democrats place a lot of blame at the feet of any of their party’s standardbearers. That’s also how Obama’s approval rating in the latest YouGov/Economist Poll can be 21 points higher than the 29% “right direction” figure (in fact, one in six Americans both approve of Obama's job performance and think the country is off track). Approval of Congress, on the other hand, is fully 18 points below “right direction”. This dynamic probably helps make Obama's approval rating a better predictor for presidential election outcomes than the "right direction/wrong track" question, something investigated recently by Nate Cohn for The Upshot.

Similarly, it helps explain why voters are not convinced a change from "Democrat" to "Republican" in the nation's highest political office will set the country straight. In the same poll that asks about who to blame, respondents were asked whether Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump would make things better, worse, or have no impact if elected president. Americans are more likely to see the Republican nominee as an agent of "change", but they are also more likely to see him as an agent of specifically negative change.

To be sure, there is very real frustration in the country and it may be dragging Clinton down. Those who see things headed the wrong way mostly prefer Trump to put the country back on track. Recent YouGov/CBS News polls in swing states found that voters tend to think Clinton makes things sound rosier than they are. But when it comes to speculating about the political implications of the national mood, "right direction/wrong track" is probably the wrong question to ask.

YouGov/Economist Poll Archives