WMAQ
By Chief White House correspondent and political director
NBC News
updated 7/20/2007 12:03:27 PM ET 2007-07-20T16:03:27

One of the biggest vacuums in the campaign to date is the lack of understanding by many reporters and analysts of what continues to be the most startling poll results of the campaign: the country's pessimistic mood.

No matter how a pollster asks it, the result is the same these days, nearly three quarters of the country believes we're off on the wrong track.

Currently, according to Republican pollster Steve Lombardo, we're in the midst of one of the longest runs in modern polling where a majority of the country believes things are on the wrong track.

Malaise eras
To confirm, I asked the folks at www.pollster.com to help me find the other periods of depression for the country. The last two they could find via data search was the period just before and after the '92 election and the period just before and after the '80 election. Both produced presidents who ended up serving two terms and ending their reigns relatively popular.

The third period I'd add is the one before and after the '68 election, which I have no data to back up but the events of the day indicate the tumultuousness and likely angst that was felt by that voting electorate.

In the last 40 years, those three election years stand out because of how upset the electorate was. In '68, the electorate was angry but nervous; In '80, the electorate was in a, well, malaise and desperate for a burst of optimism. In '92, the country seemed frustrated and a bit fed up - which explains the 19% for Ross Perot.

But exactly what does "off on the wrong track" mean?

It's an essential question for the next president to answer because the candidate who does the best job at figuring this out will be the next president.

We saw one attempt at connecting with of these pessimistic voters earlier this week by Mitt Romney. His metaphorical-heavy TV ad about our children potentially drowning in a sea of coarsening culture is something that resonates with every parent of a child under 18. There's a powerlessness many parents feel about the influences of the Internet and video games are having on how we raise our children.

The Iraq factor
But that's just a piece of the country's pessimism.

Much of the unhappiness, of course, stems from the war, but even that is too simplistic of an answer. Sure, many are unhappy with the war, but it's more than that. Losing this war the way we're losing it (hearts and minds and not the battlefield) is what is worrying some about the future of America as a superpower.  Many voters, no matter their ideology, want America to be great and believe America should be great. Great countries don't lose wars, and great countries aren't hated with such venom from some around the world.

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The state of the war in Iraq is depressing both sides of the political spectrum right now because it's seen as a sign we're no longer as exceptional as we were.  The debate between the sides, of course, is HOW we should exemplify greatness, but I’ll save that discussion for the chat rooms.

This doesn't just translate on the military battlefield but on the economic one as well. Globalization is scaring the bejesus out of Middle America. The fact that even well educated workers are being laid off or displaced due to better (and cheaper) labor overseas is a crisis that neither party is comfortable tackling. On the surface, we’re seeing some candidates talk about education and the wage gap, but no candidate is zeroing in on this globalization issue because the popular answer may not be the right answer.

And then of course there’s been the general disappointment political leaders have delivered via corruption, like Duke Cunningham, Mark Foley and the Duke lacrosse case (botched by an elected official).

Trust abuse
Which brings me to the title of this column. Perhaps the icing on the "wrong track" cake is tumult in two institutions Americans count on to make them feel good even in times like these: sports and religion. The scandals that baseball (steroids), football (dog fighting) even cycling are experiencing combined with the lack of confidence in some key religious leaders (sexcapades of Catholic priests and evangelical ministers) is, frankly, a punch in the gut when it comes to the country’s mood.

Can't we find heroes anywhere? Simon and Garfunkel famously asked, “Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?”  They asked the question during the lengthy period of pessimism that swept the country from the late '60s through the '70s.

The politician that finally brought the country out of that funk was Reagan. 

So how is the current crop of candidates dealing with the public’s funk? To their credit, the top three candidates on each side are, in their own ways trying to position themselves as ready to be the nation's cheerleader. Rudy and Romney constantly use the word "optimistic" or “optimism” so that one doesn't have to invoke the idea of feeling good, they simply have to allow the sledgehammer to hit them on the head.

The entire premise of the Thompson candidacy is to emulate Reagan (right down to the “aw shucks” actor biography); we'll see if it can happen in practice. I have my doubts. Thompson strikes me as a candidate who can make the country feel comfortable, but can he actually inspire?

The top Democrats are subtler in their pitch to pull the country out of the doldrums, with Obama trying the hardest to position himself as the "feel good" candidate. Clinton's last name alone harkens back to the last period of peace and prosperity that we experienced as a country (the late 90s). Edwards 1.0 (i.e. the 2004) candidate was all about the “feel good.” Edwards 2.0 (the current version) is a bit more doom and gloom but he still presents the dire issues with a happy face.

There are a couple of parallel elections that we could be in the midst of right now and depending on the country's specific mood will determine the outcome. Clearly the mood of the country is down, but is it anger or depression? Is it exhaustion or fear? If it's like '68, where the country was angry but a bit fearful of drastic change, Thompson and Clinton could succeed; both are very similar to Humphrey and Nixon in that they are selling cautious change.  If the mood is exhausted and depressed, like '80, Romney and Obama could prosper.  Then again, if the mood is angry with an electorate demanding of change no matter the unintended consequences, like 92, then perhaps Edwards, Giuliani or even a Bloomberg will fit the bill. In fact, take note that in the three elections cited above ('68, '80 and '92), all of them saw significant third party candidacies influence the outcome of the election (Wallace, Anderson and Perot).

The bottom line is that the country is in a funk thanks to a mix of bad news in many parts of society. From overseas to confessional booths to AT&T Park (where Barry Bonds may be cheating his way into the history books), the country is dying to turn its lonely eyes somewhere.

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