Republican or Democrat, local county commissioner or state-wide office, it's arguably the most poll-tested and common stump speech one-liner, "I'm running for office because we are headed in the wrong direction!". It’s not a bad argument, in theory, since Americans have felt that things have been on the wrong track since the early 1970’s with only a handful of exceptions. A few years ago, an article in Daily Beast took a deeper look at the right direction/wrong track question and walks through how consistent this feeling tends to be.
Whether or not you agree, it does raise a few interesting questions about what's driving negativity among Americans. These significant peaks (both positive and negative) are often driven by only a handful of global events over the last four decades. But what's happening in between those events? What's driving individuals to feel that we are on the right track or wrong track? Or, given the consistency of the wrong track feeling, are we just pessimistic people by nature?
In February and March there was a lot going on in this country. Seventeen kids were shot at the Parkland High School, students around the country left their classroom in protest of the lack of changes to gun laws, Gary Cohn stepped down over tariffs on imported steel, Cambridge Analytica’s practices were outed, and Facebook gave a half-baked response. And these are just a few of the stories during this time period. Yet, according to public polls, the shifts in views had a slight increase in negativity overall and the individual events we talked about above did not seem to have dramatic effects on Americans, but combined, lessened the positive position. Somehow this doesn’t quite feel “right”.
We feel there is another answer out there, or really, another reason for this negative consistency: maybe we are asking the wrong question.
As we discussed in our last newsletter, forcing people to express their opinions in a binary fashion gives us an incomplete view of what is really happening. This is why our Trendency platform allows respondents to give responses that are closer to how most of us live our lives. Not in terms of black and white, but shades of grey. Instead of forcing people to choose right or wrong, we ask what percent of time they are feeling good, or positive, about things, and what percent of the time are they feeling negative. The results have been incredibly interesting.
As an example, the chart below shows the responses we have been collecting over the same time period discussed above. The positive and negative lines represent the daily changes recorded. As you can see from the scale on the left this is a fairly narrow measurement, as daily fluctuations tend to be fairly small. We also see that, contrary to public polling, there are very few moments of stability in how Americans are feeling.
In general, positive and negative movements tend to be relatively equal and small shifts. When we overlay events we can see what moves opinion. The coverage following the Parkland School Shooting has been more extensive and longer than previous school shootings. But as you can see, while the Parkland Shooting had a quick reaction and negative opinion grew for about a week, it eventually moved back down just as quickly the next week.
On March 7th, Gary Cohn resigned as National Economic Advisor after President Trump announced tariffs on steel and aluminum imports creating further uncertainty in the global markets. We doubt that most Americans now who Gary Cohn is, but there was a sustained set of news cycles focusing on turmoil in the White House, and a dip in the stock market. The reaction to these events were not as quick or as intense as the Parkland shooting, but they did continue to build and intensify with each passing negative news cycle. The Cambridge Analytica story seemed to give a boost to the negative trend which lasted about a week before shifting back down to a less volatile state.
In an ever changing world, where we are bombarded with new information from the moment we wake up, till two minutes before we go to sleep, it is time to rethink how we are measuring people’s opinions, and how we interpret the data we have.