Which Came First: The Dissatisfaction or the Change Candidate?


Check out this graph from Gallup:

What jumped out at me when I saw this graph was that 1980 was the year Ronald Reagan was elected, and 1992 was the year Bill Clinton was elected. The numbers for 2008 lead to a rather obvious prediction, then.



  1. nimh  •  Oct 10, 2008 @6:53 am

    Yep – and the dissatisfaction is slightly greater still than in either of those years. Americans more dissatisfied about the direction of the country than in any time in the past thirty years or more.. that’s some number. Exceptional times.

    Then again, satisfaction was as high as at any time in 2000, and the incumbent party still lost. So it doesnt necessarily work the other way round I guess.

  2. sozobe  •  Oct 10, 2008 @8:28 am

    I noticed that, yeah… I think that’s directly attributable to Monica.

  3. nimh  •  Oct 10, 2008 @12:34 pm

    Hhmmm… I wonder if there’s a broader element to it.

    Like, if things are so bad you just cant bear it anymore, you’ll opt for change.

    As long as things seem to be going OK, to larger or smaller extent – you’re managing or even managing well, but you’re still keenly aware of how easily it suddenly could go wrong, you’re likely to opt for stability. Steer the course.

    If things seem to be sailing through, life is good, no threat on the horizon, you might have the luxury to say, hey — ok, we ensured the basic stuff – how’s about what else we might want? Can we afford a change yet? Isnt it time to shift gears?

    This has long been a pet theory of mine. I even used a version of it for my thesis, which was about the political mobilisation of ethnic identity, basically (minority groups specifically, but by implication majority groups too).

    What I posited, simplified grossly, was that as long as circumstances were stable, social roles were set and uncontested, ethnic mobilisation was unlikely to happen. Regardless, mind, of whether things were stable in a bad way, up to where people just couldnt conceive of how things could be better, or in a good way, where the engine of society is just quietly humming along.

    However, as soon as drastic social change occurs and the roles and places of different people and groups are suddenly in a flux and contested, people are likely to mobilise on the basis of primary group identities. They suddenly see opportunities that they are eager to grab and anxious about missing out on. Or they see everything crumbling or outright falling apart and they’re desperate to hang on and not be pulled down. In both cases, there’s an existential insecurity, and people will look around for a basic, uncontestable group belonging to cluster around and hold on to – like ethnic or religious belonging.

    Okay, where was I going with that? Hmm…

    Oh yeah, so taking a step back again, you’ve got – say – people radicalising in the 30s, years of crisis and disintegration that makes people desperately reach for change. Then in the 50s, life wasnt easy, people buckled up and worked hard, rebuilding their countries after the war, but there was stability and steady progress, and so they kept voting their governments back in. Middle of the road straight through. Then by the 60s a whole new generation had grown up that had never known the bad times, and for whom regular security was a given, rather than something to be grateful for and secure by staying the course. Having grown up with basic prosperity, they were impatient for more and opted for change again.

    So maybe something like that too, on a different scale, if you compare ’80 and, to a lesser extent, ’92 (crisis) with ’88, ’96, ’04, when things were going middling and people opted to not rock the boat, and ’00, when drunk on the luxury of unprecedented good times, people thought they had the luxury of trying something else?

    Hmm, pretty simplistic really. Definitely not original. But a bit beyond just Monica.

  4. sozobe  •  Oct 10, 2008 @12:49 pm

    Interesting… I see what you’re saying.

    Part of what I was wondering with this — most evident in my title but I didn’t really expand on it in the blog post — is that things took a sharp dip in the period before the change candidate was elected. When, presumably, the change candidate was campaigning. (Hard to tell for 1980.)

    Look how high things were in 1991, and then blam.

    Obviously, economy was an issue there. But I’m wondering if there is some element of LOOKING at options — knowing there are options (this seems to be related to what you were saying, too) — is part of what makes people say hey, I don’t like how things are right now.

    I know there have been experiments where people are given more or less choice in a situation and they tend to (counterintuitively!) be happier when they have less choice. Like, photography students were told to hand over a certain photograph (it was something like that). One group just handed it over and that was that. Another group could ask for it back after a period of time. The group that didn’t have any choice about getting the photograph back were happier with their decision than the group that didn’t. (I can track this down, may have been from “Stumbling on Happiness” by Daniel Gilbert.)

    Anyway, I think much of the discussion in the 2000 campaign was not about the state of the country per se — what people thought about their everyday lives — but the state of the government, personified by Bill Clinton. Values. All that crap.

    I think if they were dissatisfied with Bill Clinton and his values (or lack thereof) that would be less likely to translate to saying that they were dissatisfied with their own lives.

    Whereas 1980 was “are you better off now than you were four years ago?” and 1992 was “it’s the economy, stupid.”

    This is all firmly in the category of “wondering” vs. “positing” btw — I’m kind of thinking aloud.

    Edit: Hmmm… I’ll leave what I wrote because I don’t want to delete it but there are some glaring problems…

  5. sozobe  •  Oct 10, 2008 @1:03 pm

    Ha… I was looking for the primary calendar for 1992, found this — love the format, brings back memories. :) (I was JUST starting to use the internet at the time, and that’s what everything looked like…)


  6. nimh  •  Oct 10, 2008 @1:45 pm

    Heh, funny :-)

    things took a sharp dip in the period before the change candidate was elected. When, presumably, the change candidate was campaigning. [..] Look how high things were in 1991, and then blam.

    Hmm … I think the sharp drop in Bush Sr’s ratings took place, or largely took place, before the Clinton and Perot campaigns took off.

    I remember it – or at least think I do – how drastic a phenomenon it was. One of the biggest roller coasters in a president’s fate in recent history I think. First Bush’s popularity was pumped up to record high levels during and directly after the first Gulf war. Then the economic crisis kicked in and the mood of the country just … turned on a dime (if that’s the right expression), and crashed.

    I think it was very much the crisis-fuelled mood turn that made Clinton (and Perot especially!) possible, rather than the other way round.

    In general, but that may be my background, I’m firmly on the side that believes the systemic changes and long-term undercurrents produce the candidates, or at least the opportunities the candidates get to take advantage of, rather than that individual candidates, no matter how charismatic, shape or create these big turn-arounds.

    So that’s also very much the way I would have taken your post, and chart — like, hmm, well: we tend to view everything through the person- and event-focused prism of political journalism etc. Explain changes in general public opinion by referring to this or that political event or the power of this or that candidate. And obviously those play a role. But to a large extent it’s also us looking at all the exciting glittery reflections on the water’s surface, when those only appear because of the currents far underneath.

    As in: at a time when there was no sense of impending economic doom, when there was no massively impopular President and little more confidence in Congress, when there was no such near-anonymous view of the country being off-track, a candidate like Obama would either not have gotten the chance to break through (and storm past Hillary, for example) in the first place, or not have had the chance to come out winning as he is now doing. No matter how admittedly brilliant or skilled or charismatic he is.

    Like, this year the Republicans’ culture war attacks are floundering. And part of that of course is that Obama is simply very skilled in deflecting them. But a larger part, I think, is the sheer predominance of economic anxiety and the yearning for change. Those white working class racists who still talk about “niggers” — now some of them are leaning to voting for Obama in spite of their racism. Or planning on staying home. But if the economy had been middling rather than bad, and if Bush and co had not thoroughly destroyed the Republican brand the way they did, things would have been different.

    No matter how good Obama is (and I agree he is something of a once-in-a-generation political talent), I dont think he would have survived the Wright and Ayers stuff, the militant-black-stranger-in-our-midst attacks, eight years ago. Or four years ago, even. Hell, he barely squeaked through the primaries now, and much of the closeness was rooted in that identity stuff.

    This year, the yearning for change and the existential concern about the economy are overriding the Rove-type politics of identity. And Obama’s justly getting kudos for his own mad skillz in deflecting those as well. But I think we shouldnt kid ourselves that this kind of politics is suddenly impotent, and might not well have proven sufficiently successful to block Obama in another, less ‘perfect storm’ type year.

  7. sozobe  •  Oct 10, 2008 @1:53 pm

    I wasn’t talking about individual skills here though — I was talking about larger social currents, too. As in, that there is a sort of an interplay — bad situation –> change candidate looks good –> this is reflected in polls –> change candidate looks more viable –> change candidate runs on changing the bad situation –> bad situation is talked about a lot –> dissatisfaction is reflected and affirmed –> the change candidate benefits from dissatisfaction… etc.

    One of the “glaring problems” though (see my edit) is that I don’t want to indicate that there weren’t real problems that people didn’t need an election to be bothered by.