Are America’s Best Days in the Past: New Jerseyans Weigh In

Today’s release for the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll is NOT about NJ Gov. Chris Christie. But it IS about something at least as important: How do New Jerseyans view the country’s economic future? The answer is they are quite split. A bare majority thinks things will get better, but nearly as many believe America’s best economic times are behind it and the next generation will be worse off.

Such findings are depressing if not surprising, given how the economic recovery has not been particularly robust over the past five years.

We also asked respondents to choose which is the greater problem facing the country: income inequality or too much government. This forced choice question does NOT ask if people think both are significant problems, but instead requires respondents to choose one or the other. In doing so we find the expected partisan differences, but also a small gender gap, with women slightly more likely than men to focus on income inequality.

What’s maybe more interesting is despite the fact that women lean more Democratic, and thus would be expected to be relatively positive about the country’s economic future since a Democrat is in the White House, and people tend support their party leaders, the opposite is true. Women are significantly more likely to say the country’s best economic days are behind it, even as they contradict the other partisan findings that Democrats are generally much more optimistic than Republicans. We speculate that this may be because women have born more of the brunt of the economic downturn or are more connected to the family finances.

For a PDF of the release text along with questions and tables, click here.

ARE AMERICA’S BEST ECONOMIC DAYS IN THE PAST?
NEW JERSEYANS SPLIT ON INCOME INEQUALITY VS. TOO MUCH GOVERNMENT

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. – While New Jersey has a reputation as a liberal-leaning state, residents are split over whether America’s greater problem is income inequality or too much government, according to the latest Rutgers-Eagleton Poll. Asked to choose between the typically liberal belief that income inequality is a bigger problem and conservatives’ regular assertion that the real problem is too much government, New Jersey residents evenly divide at 48 percent for each.

New Jerseyans also divide over the country’s economic future. A bare majority (51 percent) optimistically asserts that the country’s current economic problems are just temporary, while 45 percent pessimistically thinks America’s best days are in the past and the next generation will have to accept a lower standard of living.

“We recently reported large majorities of Garden Staters support a wide range of liberal social positions, but it’s different when it comes to economic well-being,” said David Redlawsk, director of the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll and professor of political science at Rutgers. “While New Jersey is one of the most affluent states, residents appear quite unsettled about the country’s economic future. Moreover, the liberal focus on income inequality is less prevalent than might be expected, when placed against a desire for smaller government.”

Results are from a statewide poll of 842 New Jersey adults with a margin of error of +/- 3.7 percentage points, contacted by live callers on both landlines and cell phones from Feb. 22 to 28, part of a  three-state study carried out by Eagleton (NJ), the Siena Research Institute (NY), and Roanoke College’s Institute for Policy and Opinion Research (VA). New Jerseyans fall between New Yorkers, a majority of whom (54 percent) say income inequality is the bigger problem and Virginia, where 52 percent say the problem is too much government.

Partisan divide: Income inequality vs. too much government

Unsurprisingly, Garden State Republicans argue that too much government is the greater problem, while Democrats think it is income inequality. Among GOP backers, 79 percent say the former is the greater problem, versus 18 percent who see income inequality as a bigger issue.

But more than two-thirds of Democrats endorse the liberal argument that income inequality is the larger problem, with 31 percent citing bigger government. The even split across the full population comes because independents – the largest political segment in the state – are split, with 45 percent focused on income inequality and 48 percent on bigger government.

“These two problems define current classic partisan divide in America so the big picture is a bit misleading,” said Redlawsk. “Looked at overall, opinions look muddled since New Jerseyans appear evenly divided. But partisans definitely hew their party lines, and it is these same partisans who care most about these questions.”

Reflecting the same partisan divide, supporters of President Barack Obama are highly likely to say income inequality is the greater of the two problems, while a majority of those unfavorable toward the president think the problem is too much government.

There appears to be a weak link between a pessimistic view of the country’s future and believing that too much government is a bigger problem than income inequality. A slight majority of those who think America’s best economic days are in the past side with the conservative view that too much government is the problem, while a slight majority of those optimistic about the economic future thinks income inequality is a more critical issue.

A small gender gap exists as well. Just over half of women side with income inequality, while just over half of men side with too much government. Age also shows some divisions: 56 percent of residents under 30 year old see the problem as income inequality, while older groups are more likely to feel government is too big. While there is no clear trend by income bracket, a focus on income inequality increases with increased levels of education.

Democrats, Obama supporters more optimistic about economic future

While New Jerseyans overall are split between whether the nation’s current economic problems are temporary or reflect a long-term decline, some groups are much more divided.

Sixty-two percent of Democrats say the current economic situation is temporary, with 35 percent see the country’s best days in the past. Independents lean pessimistic: half say the country’s best days are in the past, while 46 percent expect the economy to rebound. Republicans feel similarly: 51 percent are pessimistic, but 44 percent say economic problems are temporary.

Obama supporters and detractors show similar patterns. Almost two-thirds of supporters say problems are temporary, while 60 percent of detractors believe America will never regain its economic strength. Likewise, 58 percent of those for whom income inequality is the greater problem think that the economy will regain its strength. However, respondents who say too much government is the problem express a pessimistic view of the economic future, 53 percent to 45 percent.

Almost three-quarters of New Jerseyans who see the U.S. as on the right track call the current economic situation temporary. Those who say the country is going in the wrong direction are less positive, with 57 percent view current economic problems as permanent, versus 40 percent who are more optimistic. Fifty-four percent of residents who think the Garden State is on the right track say the current economic situation is temporary. Those who feel the opposite are equally split, 48 percent optimistic to 50 percent saying the best days are behind us.

Men are much more optimistic about the future than women; 58 percent call the current economic malaise temporary and 38 percent says America’s best days are behind it. While 45 percent of women think conditions will improve, just over half say the country’s best days are past.

“These differences in opinion are not what we necessarily expected,” noted Redlawsk. “Obama’s supporters probably transfer their good feelings about Obama to their perceptions of his work on the economy, and thus see the future as bright. What’s interesting is that the president’s detractors are not unrelentingly negative about the future – more pessimistic than optimistic, perhaps, but not completely on one side or the other.”

Redlawsk added that the gender gap on this question seems to operate in an unexpected direction. “Women, who typically lean more Democratic and more liberal, are nonetheless more pessimistic about the economic future. This may be due to experiencing a gender pay gap that has proven especially painful in this economy. Or, being typically more likely to handle everyday household finances, women may have a better grasp on how difficult things are today compared to before the recession, and thus are less likely to see light at the end of the economic tunnel.”

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