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'Slipping behind': Are we becoming a nation of pessimists?

A new NBC News/Esquire poll shows that a majority of Americans are now in the political center. NBC News political director Chuck Todd discusses the findings with Matt Lauer.

America has long been an unaccountably cheerful nation, reporting happy thoughts to pollsters no matter what roiling storm seems to be overhead. But a darker reality has begun to break through, according to a new Esquire-NBC News survey of “the new American center.”

The large-scale, bipartisan project — co-created by pollsters for President Obama and former Governor Mitt Romney — organized the nation into eight categories based on ideology, with two groups on either extreme and four in the center, representing a new American majority. The data reveal the feelings and issues that unite voters today, regardless of party or ideology — and as a guide to the winning political messages of the future, says Republican pollster Robert Blizzard, who helped produce the results, the work is nothing short of “a bible.”

It’s also an epic downer.

Americans in general and most Americans in the new center expressed profound gloom about the state of economy. None — zero, goose-egg, zilch — were willing to call it “excellent,” and a plurality (41 percent) guess that it will remain this bad or worse for at least a few more years.

It’s the same story with politics. Even before the federal shutdown started on October 1st, almost one in two members of the new center said the two-party system is broken — and a hard majority (58 percent) expect the quibbling, show-boating, and gridlock to stay the same or get worse in the near future.

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But America’s black mood is even darker than it already seems. For years most Americans have thought the economy bad, politics awful and the national trajectory skewed hard to doom and destruction. The startling difference in the NBC-Esquire survey is that most Americans now also think life is going poorly in their own backyard. The survey didn’t directly ask about happiness, but when evaluating their own lives more than 85 percent of people in the center thought they were stuck, “falling backward” or “slipping behind.”

Two out of three of these people believe that the next generation has it even worse, and that young people in general are facing vicious headwinds like nothing their parents experienced.  

The cost of all this sour feeling is a cascading sense that the old ways of America have failed, say the pollsters. It’s why most of the new American center says affirmative action has to go, and unions are a vestige of the past, and the Bible and U.S. Constitution could be jettisoned without harm as the nation searches for a way to right itself.

“People feel eroded,” said Democratic pollster Daniel Franklin, who helped conduct the survey. “They’ve seen the strength of the middle class wane, and correspondingly, the country as a whole begin to falter. Now they’re looking for new ideas, new strategies to rebuild their hopes and they haven’t found them yet.”

Explore Esquire magazine's coverage of the exclusive survey.  

That’s potentially good news, say Franklin and Blizzard. A more optimistic nation might be stuck in its ways, confident that the good days will roll on, hesitant to break that happy momentum. By contrast, the new American center is eager for change. It’s still a relatively steady nation, rooted in tolerant yet traditional values, and firm in its belief that marriage and family are important institutions for the future. Yet it’s hopeful that something new — a novel policy or position, a fresh program or a galvanizing politician — can make for a turnaround yet.

Not that the center agrees on what America needs, although a few ideas stand out. The center strongly supports protections for small businesses (63 percent), higher taxes on people making more than a million dollars a year (78 percent), and giving people a wide berth in their personal lives. A third of the center wants prostitution to be legalized, for example, and almost two-thirds demand the freedom to scarf high-calorie foods of any size.

Aside from abortion, however, no issue splits the center more than the role of government in getting America back on track. A plurality (40 percent) believes government spending is wasteful and inefficient, and yet a slim majority (51 percent) believes the government could do more to problem solve and meet people’s needs.

Very little is certain, says Franklin, except that the center is hungry for a change — and unlikely to be fooled by charm or guile. Remember the idea that people voted for President Bush because he was the one they most wanted to have a beer with? That is over if it ever existed. In the dark aftermath of a 10-year-war and a 5-year economic malaise, only 28 percent percent of the center says likeability matters when casting a vote.

The issues are once again all people see.

The survey of 2,410 registered voters was conducted from August 5-11, 2013, using cutting-edge polling and analytical techniques, by Benenson Strategy Group (headed by Joel Benenson, lead pollster for Obama in ‘08 and '12) and Neil Newhouse of Public Opinion Strategies (the lead pollster for Romney '12.)



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