Economy, war topped '06 worry lists

But some well-covered stories didn't change American public opinion much, experts find

December 31, 2006|By Jodie T. Allen and Carroll Doherty

Economic issues — Jodie T. Allen is senior editor at the Pew Research Center. Carroll Doherty is associate director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Here is their assessment of how public opinion shaped events in America last year.

Once again, public opinion played a major role in the most important news stories of the year. Some of the strongest 2006 trends in public opinion carried over from previous years - notably, growing concern about the Iraq war and mounting dissatisfaction with the performance of the Republican-controlled Congress. In the case of another continuing story, the succession of scandalous revelations involving lobbyists, members of Congress and other high-profile figures, intense media coverage failed to ignite immediate public outrage, but its cumulative effect was nonetheless apparent on Election Day.

Economic issues - especially a sharp rise in gasoline prices during the first several months of the year - remained high on Americans' worry list, and the public seemed immune to cheerier economic indicators, including receding prices at the pump and a booming stock market.

Notable new stories also attracted considerable attention. These include: such happenings as Vice President Dick Cheney's accidental shooting of a fellow hunter, the proposed takeover of U.S. port facilities by a Mideast emirate and the death of miners trapped in a West Virginia coal mine.

Here are the top public opinion stories of 2006:

(1) A National Wave Still Matters. ... If It's Strong Enough. All year, Democrats held sizable and consistent leads in the so-called generic House ballot derived from national samples of prospective voters. Yet Republicans still held out hope that their carefully constructed electoral seawall - safe-seat redistricting - would enable them to survive with their congressional majorities diminished but still existing. But the tide was too high: Democrats, helped by the shifting sentiments of independents and moderates, won by 7 points in the popular vote for the House, more than enough for them to take control. Still, the results suggest that gerrymandering provided some cushion for incumbents: This year, Democrats garnered at least as great a percentage of the popular vote as did Republicans in 1994, and won the same number of seats as the GOP did 12 years ago. However, fewer incumbents lost their seats in '06 than in 1994, despite comparable levels of discontent with Washington.

(2) Deepening Gloom about Iraq. Throughout the year, the public increasingly came to the view that the situation in Iraq was deteriorating by the day. By December, half of Americans expressed the view that the war in Iraq would turn out to be another Vietnam, while just a third thought the United States would accomplish its goals there. As recently as April, opinion on this issue was evenly divided. Disapproval of President Bush's handling of the situation in Iraq has spiked, rising to 71 percent from 61 percent in August and 58 percent last December. But no real consensus emerged about what to do next. Still, the proportion of Americans who believe the U.S. should set a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq is at an all-time high (58 percent); as recently as September, the public was roughly split on this issue.

(3) A Nation Addicted. Gas prices dominated the public's attention - as long as they were on the upswing. In February, fully 85 percent of the public agreed with President Bush's assertion in his State of the Union address that the United States is addicted to oil. But many are skeptical that America can wean itself from foreign oil within the next two decades. Half of the public saw the United States ending reliance on foreign oil within the next 20 years, while 42 percent said we could not. Public attention to the issue remained high - in early May, 69 percent of the public said they were following news stories about high gasoline prices very closely, as did 60 percent in August.

(4) No Port in a Storm. Do Americans really care whether a foreign firm manages port facilities in the United States? It turns out they care passionately - if the foreign firm in question is based in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. The backlash over the proposed ports deal in March surprised the Bush administration, drove the president's approval rating to 33 percent (a new low at the time), and made even the much-maligned Congress look good: 58 percent said lawmakers did the right thing in strenuously opposing the deal.

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