Poll: Anger, Anti-Incumbency: It's Frustration, 2010-Style

Ahead of 2010 midterms, American discontent well above the boiling point.

June 7, 2010, 5:09 PM

June 8, 2010 -- Anti-incumbency's spiked to a new peak, anger at the government has tied its high, Americans' customary approval of their own representative in Congress has hit a 16-year low -- and a new ABC News index measuring all this pent-up discontent is well above the boiling point.

It has all the makings of a hot political summer.

Click here for a PDF with charts and questionnaire.

The mood's captured in ABC's newly minted Frustration Index, based on four fundamental measures of public attitudes -- ratings of the president's performance, views of the economy, satisfaction with government and support for incumbents. Figured on a scale of 0 to 100, with 100 the grouchiest, the index today stands at 67. It's been higher just twice in available data -- in 2008, as the economy fell into the abyss, and in 1992, amid the debris of the last deep recession.

Click Here: ABC News' Frustration Index Explained

The sign reads "incumbents beware." The Frustration Index is higher than its estimated level in 1994, when the Republicans seized control of Congress for the first time in 42 years; and in 2006, when the Democrats took it back. (See details of the index, and historical data, here.)

Other data from individual questions in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll make it look even more like a political pigeon shoot. Consider:

Frustration Index: Poor Economy Fuels Public Discontent

In case there's any wonder where much of this comes from: More than a year and a half after the economy fell into the ditch, 88 percent of Americans still say it's in bad shape. Just 30 percent say it's improving -- better than it's been, but not great. And there's been a seven-point drop, again to 30 percent, in the number who say the federal stimulus has helped -- calling into question the purchasing power of that administration talking point.

Discontent, however, is an equal-opportunity employer: While incumbents are in trouble, things are looking rocky for the insurgency as well. Unfavorable views of the tea party movement have spiked by 11 points, to 50 percent, up from 39 percent in March, with fewer undecided. Favorable views have slipped by five points in the same period, to 36 percent. Having more people see you unfavorably than favorably is not a working political strategy.

The change has come equally among Democrats and independents -- the latter the crucial swing voters in election politics. And young people especially have turned away, their unfavorable views of the tea party rising by a dramatic 22 points, from 38 percent in March to 60 percent now. However, such views are up by 12 points among seniors -- and by 13 points among conservatives, the movement's ideological base.

Some features of tea party admirers remain intact. In this group, for example, anger at the way the federal government is working soars to 42 percent, compared with an also-high 36 percent among Republicans and conservatives alike.

Frustration Index: Country Divided Over Size, Role of Government

DIVISION AND RISK -- Forty-seven percent of registered voters say they'd vote for the Democrat in their Congressional district if the election were today, 44 percent the Republican. The GOP, though, gets a boost among likely voters -- a D-R race of 44-48 percent -- underscoring the Democrats' challenges turning out some of their base groups, especially young voters.

Although the public's mood especially endangers the majority party, Democrats are retaining the edge in another important measure: Americans trust them over the Republicans to handle the country's biggest problems, 44 percent to 32 percent. That's worsened slightly for the GOP, which scored 37 percent against the Democrats in February. A measure worth watching, it's one on which the Republicans battled to parity before the 1994 elections. (The GOP held a rare advantage on this measure in 2002, in a rally to the in-power party during the aftermath of 9/11.)

One reason is support in their respective bases. More liberals trust the Democrats to handle the country's main problems, 69 percent, than conservatives trust the Republicans, 51 percent.

Still, while the Democrats lead in trust to handle the main problems overall, it's a closer contest on another key issue: which party has the best ideas about the right size and role of government. On this, 45 percent pick the Democrats, 40 percent the Republicans; among likely voters it's reversed, 41 percent to 44 percent. That, plus President Obama's 56 percent disapproval on the deficit, coupled with doubts about the effect of the stimulus, make for a handy election-year cudgel.

Given the circumstances, Obama's holding his own, with a 52 percent job approval rating overall, boosted by vast loyalty in his own party -- 82 percent approval -- and a still-high 74 percent approval rating from liberals (albeit a new low, by a scant 2 points).

But the number of Americans who think the president "understands the problems of people like you," at 51 percent, is down from 56 percent in a Washington Post poll in late March; and at 57 percent his rating as a strong leader is down from 65 percent in March. Both are much farther below their peaks early in his presidency.

The oil spill can't be helping, but may be contributing more to broader dissatisfaction with the government than with Obama himself. Slightly more disapprove than approve of his handling of the oil spill, 49 percent to 44 percent; however this is much less negative than the oil spill ratings given to the federal government overall, and especially to BP. (See separate report released Monday.)

Frustration Index: Public Divided Over Obama's Handling of Economy

Given its sorry shape, Obama's also getting less abuse than might be expected on the economy: The public divides on his performance there, 50 percent to 49 percent, with approval basically flat from April, but slightly (5 points) better than it was at its lows in February and March. Moreover, the number who say it's improving, 30 percent in this poll, has gained 7 points this year.

INDEX -- Capturing economic and political views alike, the ABC News Frustration Index has tracked closely with election outcomes in the past -- measured both by the re-election of House incumbents and the success of the then-president's party.

The index has seen frustration highs in 1992, when it hit 73 as a recession-battered public prepared to remove incumbent George H.W. Bush from office; 1994, when it saw 63 as a still-annoyed electorate gave the GOP control of Congress; 62 in 2006, when the Democrats regained control amid widespread rejection of George W. Bush; and 80 in 2008, as the economy tanked. These compare to its lowest, 39 in 1998, when incumbent re-election peaked in this period.

At 67 today, frustration is solidly in the red zone -- an indicator worth watching as the 2010 midterms approach.

METHODOLOGY -- This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone June 3-6, 2010, among a random national sample of 1,004 adults, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents. Results for the full sample have a 3.5-point error margin. Click here for a detailed description of sampling error. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, PA.

ABC News polls can be found at ABCNEWS.com at abcnews.com/pollingunit.

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