By Mary Winter

Republican pollster Neil Newhouse started off with a grabber: How many in the audience are running for office, he asked. Next, he wanted to know, how many of those races are competitive?

Pollsters Neil Newhouse (standing) and Geoffrey Garin delivered stark messages about Americans' confidence in their political system.Several hands shot up, and without missing a beat, Newhouse raised his brows and said,

“Then what the hell are you doing here?”

The audience—state legislators and their staffs attending NCSL’s 40th Legislative Summit in Minneapolis—roared their appreciation at Newhouse’s well-timed humor.

Newhouse and Geoff Garin, two of America’s most prolific political pollsters, were keynote speakers at Thursday’s general session of the five-day summit, the largest annual gathering of state lawmakers in the country.

Newhouse’s humor was a light moment in his otherwise grim depiction of the state of American politics.

“This is the worst political environment going into a mid-term in memory,” he said. “Americans are fed up, frustrated and angry at politicians, especially Washington politicians.”

Incumbents, he said, are not in safe territory.

Seventy-one percent of Americans say elected officials are unable to get things done, according to Newhouse’s polls.

Fifty-four percent of voters disapprove of President Obama’s performance, 79 percent disapprove of Congress, and a majority think the nation’s political system is broken. Partisanship is at an all-time high, he added. “The political middle in the House of Representatives has disappeared over the past 30 years.”

Adding to Americans’ discontent is the economy. Forty percent say someone in their household has lost a job in the last five years, and 64 percent say the recession is still affecting them, Newhouse said.

Forty-nine percent think the country is still in a recession. It’s not, according to economists, but “The truth is what the people believe,” Newhouse said.

Newhouse said Republicans “may or may not” win a majority the U.S. Senate in the mid-terms. In their favor is President Obama’s low approval rating and the fact that independents are leaning red. On the other hand, the GOP’s image is in the dumps and the party has made few if any inroads with minorities, Newhouse said.

Garin, a Democratic strategist and pollster, agreed Americans have rarely been more pessimistic about politics and the state of the nation.

Americans place a high value on equal economic opportunity for all, he said, but 54 percent no longer believe that with hard work and determination, anyone can still get ahead here.

In a poll, 66 percent said that what America needs most today is “an economy that works for all, not just the 1 percent.”

The widening gap between the wealthy and everyone else undermines the idea that America is still the land of equal opportunity, Garin said.

Newhouse’s research reflects the same. Fifty-nine percent in a recent poll said they believe the American Dream “is just a dream,” and a majority of voters today think their kids will be worse off than they are, Newhouse said.

Americans, especially Republicans, also believe increasing dependence on government is unhealthy, he said. Fifty-seven percent of voters say what America needs most is “fewer people dependent on government.”

Today, 41 percent of Americans view themselves as conservatives, 22 percent view themselves as liberal, and 34 percent say they are moderates, Garin said.

But those numbers change, depending on the topic, he said. On social issues, such as abortion and gay rights, 48 percent of Americans say they are liberal, while on fiscal issues, 47 percent consider themselves conservatives, Garin said.

His research shows Americans’ top concerns, in descending order, are: the economy, education, health care affordability, budget deficit, illegal immigration, energy, taxes, foreign affairs and gun policy.

“Iran, Iraq, Syria and Ukraine are big issues for the nation, but they are low down on the list of Americans’ concerns. They want the country’s focus to be at home,” Garin said.

The two pollsters parted ways on who will win Kentucky’s hotly contested U.S. race between five-term incumbent Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes.

Garin said McConnell “epitomizes everything the public dislikes about politicians and Congress.”

Newhouse was unswayed. “The rascal will be elected,” he said.

Mary Winter is assistant editor of State Legislatures magazine.

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.


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