Starting today on Good Morning America, ABC News is reporting a new measure of public discontent in this country, something we're calling America's Frustration Index. The bottom line: Fueled by political and economic discontent alike, it's running high.
We've created this index by combining four central measures in public attitudes in ABC News/Washington Post polls – views of the president's job performance, ratings of the national economy, anti-incumbent sentiment and dissatisfaction with the way the government's working.
Each of these components correlates with broader public sentiment; they're closely aligned, for instance, with views on whether the country is headed in the right direction or seriously off on the wrong track. They also correlate with two key election outcomes – the rate at which incumbents are reelected and the loss or gain of House seats by the incumbent president's party.
We're computing the Frustration Index on a scale of 0 to 100, with higher numbers indicating greater political discontent. (It's produced by subtracting the percentage of positive answers to each of the four questions from the percent negative, adding the results and dividing by four; then, to produce the scale, adding 100 and dividing by two.)
Given the absence of past polls in which all four index questions were asked together, we've computed previous index numbers since 1992 using instances when all four questions were asked within at least three months of one another. We've also used other, highly correlated data to estimate the index at the time of each presidential or midterm election.
The Frustration Index started this period at 73 out of 100 in spring and fall 1992, as economically stressed voters prepared to deny then-President George H.W. Bush a second term. While it then eased a bit, the index was a still-high 63 just before the 1994 midterm elections, when – frustrated by the slow pace of economic recovery – voters handed control of the House and Senate to the Republicans for the first time in 42 years.
As the economy picked up steam, frustration eased. The index fell to 50 in 1997 and dropped to its low, 39, in 1998 – when, not coincidentally, the re-election rate of House incumbents was its highest across this period, 98.3 percent. (The re-election rate was its lowest, 88.3 percent, in 1992, when, again not coincidentally, the Frustration Index was very high.)
A long rise in frustration began after the 2000 election, first with the collapse of the dotcom bubble, then growing dissatisfaction with then-President George W. Bush, the unpopular war in Iraq and ultimately the Great Recession. We estimate an index of 62 at the time of the 2006 election, when the Democrats retook control of Congress; it soared from there to its record high, an estimated 80, in fall 2008, as the economy fell into the abyss and voters removed the GOP from the White House.