February 25, 2024

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The Make America Great Again movement isn’t so sure that’s possible anymore.

That’s according to a new CNN poll of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents conducted by SSRS. While the poll is most focused on the political landscape ahead of the 2024 presidential election, the number that stands out most is the one that suggests a deep pessimism about what’s to come.

This is from CNN’s Jennifer Agiesta and Ariel Edwards-Levy:

Just 30% of all Republicans and Republican-leaners say the country’s best days are still ahead of it – a dramatic shift from 2019, when Trump held the White House and 77% were optimistic that the best was ahead, and lower even than the 43% who said the same in the summer of 2016, prior to Trump’s election.

It’s natural that Republicans and Republican-leaning independents would have a dimmer view during a Democratic administration, but the decline from the end of the Obama administration is noteworthy.

Toward the end of the Trump administration, strong majorities on both sides of the political aisle (67% of those who lean toward Democrats and 77% of those who lean toward Republicans) said the country’s best days were ahead.

That less than a third of those who lean toward the GOP say the same thing today suggests a dramatic mood shift.

Note: When we refer to poll respondents in this story, we’re referring both to Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.

There have been warnings about a general national depression before. Then-President Jimmy Carter addressed the nation in July 1979 – 10 days after scuttling a previously planned speech about the energy crisis and subsequently trying to speak to a cross section of Americans – and declared a “crisis of confidence” in the country.

“For the first time in the history of our country, a majority of our people believe that the next five years will be worse than the past five years,” Carter said in the remarks, which were mocked by his opponents as his “malaise” speech, although he did not use the word “malaise.”

The lack of optimism he transmitted to the country has been blamed for contributing to his loss in the presidential election a year later.

The opinion columnist David French recently wrote in The New York Times that Carter’s speech sounds almost prophetic when read through the lens of today’s political climate.

“It’s an address better suited to our time than to its own,” according to French.

It’s certainly true that some of the themes Carter touched on – inflation, energy prices, political divisions and an intractable political process – hit a nerve today.

“The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America,” Carter said back then.

He added: “Our people are losing that faith, not only in government itself but in the ability as citizens to serve as the ultimate rulers and shapers of our democracy.”

It’s hard not to read that last line from Carter and consider another detail from the new CNN poll. More than halfway into Joe Biden’s presidency and after all the allegations of 2020 voter fraud have been examined and rejected, a solid majority of Americans who lean toward the GOP – 63% – still do not believe Biden legitimately won enough votes to win the presidency.

Telling hard truths and encouraging a national therapy session turned out not to be winning politics for Carter and may have actually teed up Ronald Reagan to argue that he could chart a new and more optimistic course than Carter.

There’s a lot of overlap here. Of the Republicans-leaners who think Biden did not legitimately win, 78% also think the country’s best days are behind us.

Among the White Republicans and Republican-leaning independents without a college degree who form Trump’s political base, 75% said the best days are behind us in CNN’s poll.

There’s some more optimism among Republican-leaning Americans with a college degree, who were more likely to prefer Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in the new poll: 64% said the best days are behind us.

Trump, who has officially launched his campaign, has the strongest support among potential GOP primary voters in the CNN poll. DeSantis, who has not formally launched a campaign, is close behind. Neither man has the support of more than 40% of that potential electorate.

Both men are pushing the idea to their followers that government has been weaponized against them by a racially and culturally sensitive elite – which both Trump and DeSantis derisively refer to as “woke.”

There is another shift Agiesta and Edwards-Levy note:

Most Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (61%) say that the country’s increasing racial, ethnic and national diversity is enriching American culture, but a sizable and growing share see it as a threat.

The 38% who consider those changes a threat now is about twice as high as four years ago, and similar to where the party stood in 2016.

Meanwhile, a broad 78% majority of Republican-aligned Americans say that society’s values on sexual orientation and gender identity are changing for the worse.

And 79% say the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses, just a touch below the share who felt that way at the height of the Tea Party movement during Barack Obama’s presidency.

I couldn’t help read that portion of CNN’s poll and think of the new column by CNN’s Ronald Brownstein, about how Republican-controlled state governments are working to seize the powers of local governance from Democratic-run cities and counties.

From Brownstein:

These range from Georgia legislation that would establish a new statewide commission to discipline or remove local prosecutors, to a Texas bill allowing the state to take control of prosecuting election fraud cases, to moves by Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and Missouri Republican Attorney General Andrew Bailey to dismiss from office elected county prosecutors who are Democrats, and a Mississippi bill that would allow a state takeover of policing in the capital city of Jackson.

While the specifics of these efforts vary from minimum wage and family-leave laws to recycling policies, he argues the larger political struggle is over crime and political justice reform.

Brownstein notes “an unmistakable racial dimension to these confrontations.”

He writes, “In many instances, state-level Republicans elected primarily with the support of White, non-urban voters are looking to seize power from, or remove from office, Black or Hispanic local officials elected by largely non-White urban and suburban voters.”

CNN’s John King put an interesting segment on his “Inside Politics” show in which he applied those current poll numbers to how the GOP primary actually works.

The fact is that many states award all of their delegates to the highest vote-getter in the primary even if that vote-getter does not receive anywhere near a majority of votes.

King noted that in 2016, when Trump first secured the GOP nomination, he lost the first contest in Iowa and won in New Hampshire and South Carolina, but with only about a third of the primary vote.

He ultimately got about 45% of primary votes compared with the 50% split among his three chief rivals. That means the votes are likely out there to defeat Trump. But for now, it would mean Republicans would likely have to coalesce around a single alternative.


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