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Public Mood Swing Shifts Campaign Dynamic (posted August 8, 2002)

At the beginning of 2002, the national political climate was shaping up as a pro-incumbent and pro-establishment type of election. Voters worried about threats from abroad, but were confident the domestic economy was recovering from its Fall, 2001 slump. This mix of international uncertainty and economic confidence created a situation where incumbents were likely to do well. Candidates with experience and inside connections were advantaged as voters did not express much dissatisfaction with the overall direction of the country. Nationally, only 39 percent felt the country was headed in the wrong direction.

However, things have changed dramatically since that point. A recent survey of 721 registered voters undertaken by National Public Radio found that a clear majority (56 percent) believe the United States has "seriously gotten off on the wrong track." Between the corporate scandals, a weakening economy, and the easing of concerns about terrorist threats, voters are unhappy with the status quo and looking for candidates who represent a break with the past.

This shift in the public mood has dramatic consequences for the 2002 election season. During times when a majority believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, candidates who position themselves as outsiders typically do well. Rather than wanting politics as usual, voters look toward politicians who promise change and are willing to address voter dissatisfaction.

Nationally, this gives hope to Democrats that they will capture control of the House of Representatives. Rather than being an election about reaffirming the status quo, voters appear willing to shift the political tide in a way that advantages the party not controlling the presidency. National public opinion polls for the first time in quite a while give an edge to Democrats over Republicans in questions concerning control of the House and several policy issues of concern to voters.

In Rhode Island, look for this insider/outsider dynamic to play a role in both party gubernatorial primaries. On the Republican side, the change in public mood clearly advantages Donald Carcieri over Jim Bennett. Carcieri has positioned himself very effectively as a change agent against Bennett, the endorsed party candidate who used to head the Convention Center Authority. On the Democratic side, Myrth York is openly appealing to voters upset about the status quo, poor ethics enforcement within the state, and the dismal economic plight of working families. In stark contrast, her major opponent Sheldon Whitehouse touts group endorsements and runs ads positioning himself as the incumbent surrounded by the trappings of office. However, if voters are getting angry and worried about the economy, the public mood is going to advantage the outsider over the insider in both parties.

Polls conducted by Brown University show that the national mood swing is spilling over to the Ocean State. In January, 2002, 52 percent believed the state was headed in the right direction, while 29 percent felt it was off on the wrong track. By June, right track sentiment had dropped. Only 43 percent felt the state was headed in the right direction, while 43 percent believed it was going in the wrong direction. Since the national news over the last two months has been plastered with corporate misdeeds, a declining stock market, and economic uncertainty, voters are almost certainly more concerned about the current state direction now than they were in June.
Copyright 2000Karen Martin Media Services