February 4

By Lisa Hagen

A majority of voters feel the country is headed in the wrong direction and believe politics has become less civil one year since the swearing in of President Joe Biden and the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, though they remain hopeful about the future, according to a poll released on Thursday.

The latest battleground civility poll for Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service sought to measure perceptions of political civility, particularly a year after Biden took office with a message of restoring unity and bipartisanship. The survey also specifically looked at how the Jan. 6 riots and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic factored into political divisions.

Sixty-two percent of voters feel like the country is on the wrong track – a stable number since the last civility poll in October – compared to 32% who believe it’s headed in the right direction. That number jumps among Republicans, who overwhelmingly believe the U.S. is headed in the wrong direction at 92%, as well as with independents at 72%. With their party in power, Democrats feel more positively, with 59% who believe things are on the right track.

Voters feel equally pessimistic about the state of politics. When asked about political civility since Biden became president, 43% think it’s less civil, while 29% believe there’s now more civility and 27% say it’s remained about the same. And since the start of the pandemic, 67% believe politics has become less civil, with just 15% who think there’s more civility.

When asked to define the level of political divisions on a scale of 0 – meaning there’s none – to 100 – “on the edge of civil war” – voters gave a mean score of 70.36.

“There’s a new normal of extraordinary pessimism in this country. And this data is certainly not going to be a deviation of that,” Democratic strategist Celinda Lake said during a Thursday virtual discussion of the poll at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast. “There’s one thing that America is united about, and that is how divided we are.”

Republican strategist Ed Goeas, who works with Lake on the survey, added that the poll gives an “indication that the speed bumps are going to continue,” and that “leaves opening for more violence on civility and perceptions of civility.”

The survey found Democrats and Republicans largely split on the state of the country, political civility and the likelihood of more violence stemming from those divisions. Independent voters felt more frustrated by the direction of the country than Democrats but were almost evenly split on the prospect of more violence and more worried about it than Republican voters.

Division in the U.S. is an issue that’s top of mind for all voters, and especially for independents. When it comes to the most important issues, division in the country ranks in the top three, along with jobs and the economy and rising cost of living.

Biden specifically ran his 2020 presidential campaign on healing the “soul of America” and a return to the days of bipartisanship in Congress after growing polarization under former President Donald Trump.

Goeas said Biden’s message of unity “quickly faded” after passage of the American Rescue Plan, the federal pandemic relief bill that only received support from Democrats and was signed into law less than two months into Biden’s term. But he also placed some of the blame on Republicans – and specifically Fox News.

While there’s growing frustration about incivility, politicians can benefit from being divisive or exhibiting more negative behavior. Lake noted there’s “short-term incentive structures in our culture … that promote incivility,” which help candidates and lawmakers, like Trump, receive more news coverage, attention and small-dollar donations.

Voters also feel that the Jan. 6 riots make it more likely that the U.S. will see violent political protests in the future. Fifty-eight percent believe it’s more likely, with 38% of those voters feeling strongly about it.

Even with heightened feelings of political uncertainty and lack of civility, voters are still hopeful about the future because of younger generations, with 58% agreeing that they’re optimistic “because young people are committed to making this country a better place to live for everyone.”

“They think it’s going to get worse before it’s going to get better, but they do believe it’s going to get better, and they’re pinning it … right on young voters,” said Mo Elleithee, the executive director of Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service.

The poll was conducted by Lake Research Partners and The Tarrance Group from Jan. 22-27. It surveyed 800 likely voters via phone calls and texts, and the margin of error was 3.5 percentage points.