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Poll: Discomfort with Social Directions Marks Charged Political Landscape

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(NEW YORK) — Americans by a wide margin express discomfort with the country’s direction on social issues, a potentially potent force in political preferences.

Just 34 percent in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll say they’re comfortable with the country’s social direction, while 63 percent are uncomfortable. Indeed more than four in 10 are “strongly” uncomfortable, three times as many as are strongly comfortable with the changes occurring.

See a PDF with full results, charts and tables here.

Ideological and partisan divisions largely align with that discomfort. It’s highest by far among conservatives and Republicans, but also substantial in centrist groups, i.e., moderates and independents. Liberals and Democrats are much more comfortable with the country’s social direction but not universally so by any means.

Some issues are particularly divisive. This poll, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates, finds that the public splits almost evenly on the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold a key portion of Obamacare, 45-42 percent, support-oppose, and on efforts to ban displaying the Confederate flag on government property, 46-44 percent. And while 52 percent support the high court’s ruling upholding the right of gays and lesbians to marry, 44 percent are opposed. (Allowing gays to marry is more popular in general than is the court’s ruling.)

There, of course, are other issues afoot, ranging, for instance, from debates over police treatment of minorities to immigration policy to the relaxation of marijuana laws. And individual issues may play out differently, some preferred by one side of the political spectrum, some by the other.

Regardless, the broader discomfort underscores today’s charged political landscape — and may have policy and political impacts alike.

For instance, the view that the country’s headed in the right direction overall — closely associated with comfort about social changes, as well as with economic sentiment — has declined by 8 percentage points since January, to just 31 percent; instead, 65 percent say the country’s seriously off on the wrong track, up by 9 points.

And politically, much of President Obama’s approval rating and Hillary Clinton’s support in the 2016 presidential contest comes from people who express comfort with the country’s direction on social issues. If discomfort advances, both may be at some risk.

Specifically, among people who are comfortable with the country’s overall direction on social issues, 76 percent approve of Obama’s performance as president — a logical result, since he’s at the helm. Among those who are uncomfortable, approval of Obama plummets to 28 percent.

Similarly, in a hypothetical match-up against Jeb Bush, Clinton gets 75 percent support from registered voters who are comfortable with the country’s social direction, more than twice her level of support from those who are uncomfortable. Bush, in contrast, does better with the larger group of registered voters who are uncomfortable, rather than those who are comfortable, by 57-21 percent.

There are countervailing attitudes. In one, Americans by a broad 68-27 percent say the country’s economic system favors the wealthy rather than treating most Americans fairly. And this issue works for Clinton. She leads Bush by 2-1, 62-31 percent, among those who see the economic system as unfair, while he leads by 67-27 percent among those who see it as mostly fair.

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