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Americans’ mood, seven months before the 2024 election

Bruce Stokes / Apr 2024

Photo: Shutterstock

 

Americans are deeply divided over the November 2024 Presidential and Congressional elections, unable to agree both on the candidates and the issues, domestic and foreign. Seven months out from election day November 5 only one thing is clear: whatever the outcome of the election, America will remain deeply divided and Washington is likely to continue to be dysfunctional.

The electoral race is effectively tied, with Republican Donald Trump generally found to be slightly ahead of Joe Biden, but within the margin of error in the most reputable national public opinion polls. But because of the Electoral College, a system devised in the 18th Century, the U.S. does not elect its president by popular vote but by who wins the most States with the most Congress members. By that measure, the presidential contest comes down to five or six states, and in all Trump currently leads Biden.

Voters tell pollsters they are most concerned about the economy and immigration. But such views differ sharply along partisan lines, with Republicans more worried than Democrats by 37 percentage points on immigration and 21 points on the economy.

At the same time, seven-in-ten Americans say there is a threat to U.S. democracy, a Biden theme. But, for 46% of Republicans the solution is a strong leader who can rule without interference from the courts and Congress.

Foreign policy has rarely played a major role in the outcome of American elections, But both the Ukraine war and the Israel-Hamas conflict may play some minor role in voters’ decisions.

Voters want someone to solve such problems, and they look to the President to do so. Unfortunately for Biden, the approval of his handling of foreign affairs (33%) and the Middle East (27%) is even lower than his overall public approval (40%). Moreover, a majority of Republicans say the U.S. already gives too much aid to Ukraine—Trump’s position—while a plurality of Democrats believe Washington gives too little –Biden’s stance. And Democrats believe the U.S. is too supportive of Israel, while Republicans think the U.S. is too supportive of the Palestinians. Meanwhile, pluralities of Americans believe Trump has a better chance of ending the conflicts in Palestine and Ukraine and in improving relations with China.

Whoever wins in November, the election won’t resolve the legitimacy divide that has troubled American democracy since January 6, 2021. Seventy percent of 2020 Trump voters say they won’t accept a 2024 Biden victory and 46% of Biden voters claim they won’t accept a Trump win. This is a prescription for continued unrest and possible violence after the election.

And there is little hope that the next Congress will be any more productive than the last. The consensus among political analysts is that the Republicans will wrest control of the Senate from the Democrats but lose control of the House of Representatives.

The current divided Congress has seen less debate and passed less legislation than any in recent history. More and more members pursue performative politics, eschewing any pretense of trying to get substantive policy enacted. They see success as the number of social media hits they get, in part because they rely on small donors spurred on by outrage to fund their reelection campaigns.

All of this is a prescription for divided, dysfunctional government in Washington in 2025. This situation has been building for years. In the ten U.S. elections from 1960 through 1978, there were three changes in control of the House of Representatives, the Senate and/or the White House. In the next ten elections there were four such changes. In the last 12 elections there have been 10 changes, and after the 2024 election it is likely there will have been 11 out of 13. The only conclusion one can draw from this track record is that growing voter polarization combined with Americans’ historic distrust of government gives them a tolerance for gridlock in Washington.

Unfortunately, the world has to live with a dysfunctional America, underscoring the inherent unfairness that only Americans get to vote for the presumptive leader of the world, but everyone else has to live with the results.

 

Bruce Stokes

Bruce Stokes

April 2024

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