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Americans united in worry over political divisions, but not much else, poll finds

Civility has gone downhill since Biden took office, voters say

President Joe Biden ran in part on the promise of civility, but optimism is waning among likely voters surveyed this month for Georgetown University’s latest battleground poll.
President Joe Biden ran in part on the promise of civility, but optimism is waning among likely voters surveyed this month for Georgetown University’s latest battleground poll. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

American voters are worried. Worried about the economy, about inflation, about COVID-19 and about each other.

Those are the major takeaways from the latest battleground poll on political civility out of Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service. Asked which issues are the most or second-most important to them, 23 percent responded the rising cost of living, 22 percent said the economy and 21 percent cited division in the country. Climate change, COVID-19 and government spending were each at the forefront of 18 percent of respondents’ minds, followed by immigration and health care.

This was the 70th battleground poll conducted by Republican Ed Goeas of the Tarrance Group and Democrat Celinda Lake of Lake Research Partners since 1991. The pair discussed their findings Thursday morning over Zoom at a virtual event hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.

Voters don’t feel any better about where the nation’s heading since the last battleground poll in October. While the right direction responses ticked up from 29 percent to 32 percent, and wrong direction dropped from 63 percent to 62 percent, those changes fall within the poll’s 3.5 percent margin of error.

Respondents continued to say the nation has grown less civil since the pandemic began, as they have in polls conducted in August 2020 and January 2021, with 67 percent saying politics have gotten nastier compared with 15 percent who say there’s been an improvement. They also said civility has declined since Joe Biden took office — 43 percent said politics have become less civil, compared with 29 percent who said more and 27 percent who didn’t see much of a difference.

Biden ran for election in large part on a message of restoring civility and unity. Goeas said nearly half of Republican voters thought Biden could be at least somewhat successful in that effort just before he took office. But that optimism didn’t last long.

“That message, from a Republican standpoint, quickly faded when the first major piece of legislation he did was a bill that he passed very quickly, with very little discussion of building with Republicans, about 100 percent of Democrats voting for it and none of the Republicans voting for it,” Goeas said, referring to the COVID-19 relief bill that Biden signed last March.

Democrats and Republicans alike worried about partisanship, Lake noted, even though they disagree on most other issues.

“There’s one thing that America is united about, and that is how divided we are,” she said.

The concern isn’t just widespread — it’s acute. Lake and Goeas asked voters to rank division on a 0-100 scale, with 100 representing “on the edge of a civil war.” The mean response was 70.36.

A majority of voters also thought the nation will see more violent political protests in the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol: 58 percent said it was more likely, compared with 23 percent who thought it less likely (10 percent said it wouldn’t make a difference, and another 10 percent were unsure).

The survey’s results aren’t all grim. While voters apparently fear we are close to civil war, 58 percent say they are optimistic for the future because young people are committed to making America better. Only 38 percent disagreed.

But, as Goeas noted in his written analysis accompanying the poll, “even on this rosy statement, there is a partisan divide.”

While 82 percent of Democrats and 51 percent of independents agreed, 61 percent of Republicans disagreed. That divide isn’t entirely to be unexpected, as older voters have always tended to be a bit more conservative than younger generations. Surveys by the Pew Research Center suggest that’s even more true today. Millennials are more liberal than previous generations were at the same age, and Gen Z so far seems even more progressive than them. 

The poll surveyed 800 registered voters via phone calls and text messages from Jan. 22-27.

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