By Ariel Edwards-Levy, CNN
It’s one of the most commonly asked poll questions: How do Americans feel about the state of the nation? And recently, the answer has usually been a negative one.
But figuring out why people are unhappy is complicated. CNN’s latest polling asked Americans whether things in the country were going well or badly — and then, to explain in their own words, why they felt that way.
Among the 69% who said things were going either pretty or very badly, dim views of the nation’s economic conditions were a top driver. The smaller share who were more positive often cited their own, rosier takes on the economy.
Other factors that influenced Americans’ outlooks, whether positive or negative, included their views of the current occupant of the White House, opinions on social issues, conclusions drawn from their daily lives or a combination of disparate concerns. Their explanations help shed light on what respondents really mean when they answer the broad, state-of-the-nation questions frequently included on surveys.
Here’s a look at some common themes that emerged in our latest poll, as well as a sampling of responses from people across the country. Some answers have been lightly edited for length, grammar and clarity.
Views of the nation and the economy often go hand in hand. Asked to explain their view of how things are going in the US today, both 35% of those who said things were going well and 52% who said things were going badly mentioned economic factors.
Slightly over half of women, men, Whites, people of color, those younger than 45 and those 45 and older who said things were going badly all mentioned the economy when asked to explain why they felt that way.
But there were differences both along and within partisan lines among this pessimistic group.
A 58% majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents cited the economy as a reason for their discontent, with a smaller 42% of Democrats and Democratic leaners saying the same.
Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents younger than 45 were 11 points likelier than their older counterparts to cite an economic reason. Among Republicans, there was no difference by age in the share citing the economy.
Beyond general concerns about the economy, issues such as inflation and the cost of living hit home for many Americans who said the country was doing badly.
- “Cost of living is way too high. Just seems like the economy is not doing very well, but it has been like this for years. Housing market is terrible, gas prices are terrible. Student loan debt is astronomical. Even though I agree students should pay their own loan, it shouldn’t be that expensive in the first place.” — Republican man, 29, from Pennsylvania
- “A single mother cannot effectively support a household on one income. The price of everything is too high. Rent [is] outrageous while people trying to get a loan to buy a home is also unreachable to most.” — Republican woman, 30, from Iowa
- “The economy is TERRIBLE. My cost of living is MUCH MUCH MUCH higher. Go to the grocery store and you will find out.” — Republican-leaning man, 71, from Illinois
By contrast, those in the positive camp largely focused on the availability of jobs and a perception that the economy was improving. Among this group, Americans in households making $50,000 or more annually were 19 percentage points more likely than those in lower-earning households to name economic factors as a reason to say things were going well, 44% to 25%.
- “The economy is doing well. I’m unhappy with women losing bodily autonomy, and the creeping fascism from the right, but I believe Biden is doing an excellent job with the economy, the environment, and international relations.” — Democratic woman, 65, from North Dakota
- “There are still changes that I hope will be made, but for the most part we’re heading in the right direction. There is food on the shelves at the grocery stores. There are jobs at slightly better pay than before the pandemic.” — Democratic woman, 52, from Michigan
- “Unemployment is at a historic low, economy isn’t bad. Inflation is a sign that people have more money.” — Democratic-leaning man, 51, from Massachusetts
Partisanship and political divides
The public’s views of the economy are often deeply polarized, with Americans far more likely to rate conditions as good when their party holds the White House — either because their political beliefs drive them to different conclusions or because they treat survey questions as a way to tout their partisan allegiances.
Views about the broader state of the US were also deeply polarized in CNN’s latest poll, with a near-unanimous 91% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents saying things in the US were going badly, a view shared by 48% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents.
Among those who said things were going badly, 11% put the blame primarily on President Joe Biden or the Democrats, with smaller shares pointing to Congress or the government as a whole. Among Republicans and Republican leaners in that camp, the share was 17%
- “My country is having a real rough time under Biden’s presidency. Things have gone downhill the past few years.” — Republican woman, 80, from Pennsylvania
- “This country is going down the tubes. He has ruined it with everything he’s done. At least Trump was making America great again.” — Republican woman, who did not give her exact age, from New York
- “Congress is simply not focused on working together to resolve the problems facing our country.” — Republican man, 65, from Colorado
Among those who said things were going well, 5% credited Biden or the Democratic Party, and 6% offered comments opposing former President Donald Trump, with others citing improvements in government leadership or a general sense of stability.
- “We have moved out of the dishonest and corrupt shadows of the Trump and ‘conservative’ fascist dominated term of misgovernance.” — Democratic man, 44, from Nebraska
- “I think it could be so much worse, and the president is doing the best he can do with all the problems we have.” — Democratic-leaning woman, 67, from New Jersey
- “Democrats are in office. Republicans will NEVER do anything to help the working class and poor.” — Democratic man, 60, from Indiana
Others saw polarization itself as the issue. Of those who said things in the US were going badly, 7% said it was because they were concerned about political or societal divisions in the country. Democrats (13%) and those with college degrees (12%) were likelier than others to mention the issue as a main reason for their discontent.
- “We’re more divided than we’ve ever been. The GOP is trying to destroy diversity, take away women’s and LGBTQ rights. It’s a disaster here.” — Democratic woman, 37, from Connecticut
- “We have never been so divided as a nation on almost every topic and Biden is making it worse.” — Republican man, 60, from Kansas
- “The division among the citizens continues to grow. Nobody cares about their neighbors and the community.” — independent man, 38, from Texas
Societal problems and immigration
Among those unhappy with the state of the country, a significant share, 16%, cited crime or gun violence. But their precise focus varied widely, spanning everything from concerns about unrest and lawlessness to dismay about school shootings. Women were slightly more likely than men to express such concerns. A smaller share of Americans also mentioned a related constellation of issues, including policing, the criminal justice system, homelessness and drugs.
Another 10% of those who said things were going badly mentioned immigration or the situation at the border, with that concern relatively high among Republicans (17% of whom cited the issue), those age 45 and older (15%) and White Americans (12%).
- “The massive amount of senseless gun violence” — Democratic woman, 30, from California
- “The biggest thing is the violence in major cities.” — Republican woman, 71, from Ohio
- “Too many people killing kids and adults. Too much aggression and violence.” — independent woman, 40, from Oregon
- “I say things are going pretty badly because they are not handling the gun violence and school shootings. Children do not feel safe going to schools because they are afraid of someone in their school or someone coming to their school shooting it up, because it’s so easy to buy a gun now, and because most parents have them and are not watching them or locking them up away from their children. … As an African American, I feel scared for my life every time I step out the house, because I never know when something is going to happen or I get into a situation with a cop and it goes badly.” — independent woman, 18, from Texas
- “Country is headed for a depression with all these illegal immigrants costing us in money, resources, etc. Getting close to World War III. Lawlessness pervades us.” — Republican-leaning woman, 66, from Kansas
In stark contrast to the widespread discontent with the state of the nation, most Americans tend to be relatively satisfied with the course of their own lives. That shaped the broader outlooks of some of those surveyed — among those who said that things in the country were going well, 8% pointed at least in part to positive aspects of their own lives.
- “For me, I have a job, a family and have everything that I need.” — Democratic man, 70, from Texas
- “I’m not living in a box or a tent.” — Republican man, 63, from Pennsylvania
- “I’m in the military and my life hasn’t been impacted like others have.” — independent woman, 26, from Oklahoma
- “I’m looking in the mirror. You listen to the news but also to your own world.” — Democratic man, 60, from Pennsylvania
- “Everything comes down to our individual personal situation, and mine is better than it has been throughout most of my life. … Our environmental issues for future generations do not apply to me as it is highly unlikely there will be a future generation of my family. … Inflation is of little concern to me as I have always waited to buy everything on sale, and I know how to cook economically. My health is excellent. My finances are sound.” — Republican woman, 78, from Nebraska
The CNN Poll was conducted by SSRS from March 1 through March 31 among a random national sample of 1,595 adults initially reached by mail. Surveys were either conducted online or by telephone with a live interviewer. Results for the full sample have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.3 percentage points; it is larger for subgroups.
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