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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: A gloomy electorate looks ahead and expects things to get worse

We’ve long been called “the dry side” here in Eastern Washington.

Maybe we ought to change that to the dark side.

According to a new statewide poll of registered voters, pessimism is rampant among Washingtonians about the near-term prospects of our country, our state, our communities and our households.

Here on the dark side, it’s even gloomier.

Two-thirds of Washingtonians said they expect things to worsen in the United States in the year to come, according to the new Crosscut/Elway poll. That’s a steep rise in pessimism compared to a similar poll taken in December 2019 – an increase of 26 percentage points.

Forty-six percent of respondents in the new poll expect things to get worse in their own household. That’s up from 18% in 2019.

For H. Stuart Elway, who has been polling Washingtonians for three decades, this is as gloomy an electorate as he’s ever seen. He compiles the poll results into his Voter Outlook Index, on which a zero is an even split between those who expect things to get better and those who expect things to get worse.

This year’s Voter Outlook Index is minus-1.77.

“That is the lowest it has ever been, by far,” he said. “It’s usually in the middle, on the positive side of zero.”

There are some pronounced differences among demographic groups when you dig a little further into the polling data. Republicans are more pessimistic – by a factor of four – than Democrats about the future of their own households. Rural voters are twice as pessimistic as those in cities. People with household incomes of more than $100,000 are more likely than others to say things are getting much worse,

And Eastern Washingtonians expressed greater pessimism than any other part of the state.

Those figures are based on demographic breakdowns within the overall poll. The statewide survey of 400 registered voters, conducted in early July has a margin of error of 4.5%. The demographic splits within that poll – by region, by party, by age and so on – are valuable for the purposes of comparison, but the specific numbers are not as statistically strong.

This overall gloom is one of the most striking – though not necessarily surprising – features of the new poll. News coverage of this polling has emphasized some other top-line results of the survey, such as Patty Murray’s commanding lead over Tiffany Smiley, the increased Democratic lead on the generic congressional vote, or Gov. Jay Inslee’s sliding approval numbers.

But, as with past Crosscut/Elway polls, the survey’s very first question attempts to gauge the state’s hopefulness – “whether you expect things will go well or not so well in the next year or so.”

Sixty-six percent of those polled said they expected things in the United States to get worse over the next year or so, and 41% said they expected them to get much worse.

In fact, “much worse” was the largest single category among four options: Much Better, Somewhat Better, Much Worse, Somewhat Worse.

“Much better” came in at 4% – smaller than the poll’s margin of error of 4.5%.

The pessimism eased slightly as the questions came closer to home, with 59% expecting a worse future on the state level, 55% at the community level, and 46% at the household level.

Eastern Washington residents polled – who made up about a fifth of the sample, and were the largest single regional category – were markedly more pessimistic. Fully half said they expected things to be much worse in the next year, gloomier than any other region.

It is not hard to think of the reasons people would be concerned about the future, especially compared to the pre-pandemic, pre-January 6, pre-Dobbs, pre-inflationary days of Christmas 2019.

Some of them, such as crime, inflation and homelessness, are shared across ideological camps, even if people differ about what to do. Others are separated starkly by partisanship, and while these concerns are not factually comparable – the reasons to fear, say, climate change and our new theocratic Supreme Court are of a different factual magnitude from election conspiracies and critical-race theory grifts – the powerful anxiety about the future is real and widespread.

In our part of the state, the malaise is heavily partisan, it would seem – a product of a party with an “American carnage”-style view of the world at the moment.

Republicans were four times more likely than Democrats to say they expect things to get worse in their own household (44% to 11%). They were five times more likely than Democrats to say they expected this in their own community (49% to 10%), and nine times more likely to say this about the state (64% to 7%).

In terms of the future of the nation, 88% of Republicans expect things to get worse in the coming year, compared to 50% of Democrats.

Interestingly, this fear for the future has not translated – at least according to the poll – into waning support for Washington’s majority party, though both Inslee and President Biden had low approval ratings.

The relatively stable statewide Democratic advantage has actually grown recently, Elway said, with Democrats holding a 19-point lead in the generic ballot for Congress and a 20-point advantage in the generic ballot for the state Legislature.

We’ll see how that matches up with the specific votes to come, just as we’ll see how accurate our gloomy sense of the future is.

In the meantime, as Elway put it, “This is just not a very happy time.”

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