Illinois voters don't trust government, poll shows

Most don't think state or federal government will make the right decisions for them

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

A warning to Illinois politicians cranking up their post-Labor Day hype machines to woo voters: They're blasé at best about you, and they sure don't think the state or federal government is going to help them through uncertain times.

Yet they're also not ready to jump into the arms of tea party advocates, a new Tribune/WGN-TV poll found.

The traditional start of the fall campaign season finds Illinois voters in a mood that might be described as anti-politician rather than anti-incumbent, especially among those who don't identify with a particular political party. They're weathering a tough economy in a state with an unrelenting mess of a government, where federal corruption investigations brought down a Democratic governor and the Republican before him.

More than 6 in 10 lack confidence in Democratic-run Springfield, though the angst isn't limited to Illinois borders. Fully 55 percent of the voters say they don't have much or any confidence that the federal government will make the right decisions affecting them, according to the poll of 600 registered Illinois voters conducted Aug. 28-Wednesday. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

The results could mean trouble for Democrats in a blue state that is home to President Barack Obama and has high-ranking lawmakers in a Democratic-led Congress. Democrats control the statehouse and hold every top office in Illinois, which is awash in debt and unable to pay its bills on time.

"There is a lot of uncertainty, and I think that's what people are afraid of more than anything else," said Sue Larkin, 58, a poll respondent and political independent from the small central Illinois community of Carlock. The retired high school counselor said that when it comes to Illinois government, "I have little faith in anyone to run our state right now. No one is willing to put their job on the line to address problems."

But the concerns aren't reserved just for Illinois government or held only among independent voters, according to poll respondents.

"What happened to all the 'Mr. Smiths' that used to go to Washington?" asked Geri Dalke, 64, a retired insurance customer service employee from Niles, referring to the 1939 Frank Capra film featuring a Senate appointee who refuses to back down from opposing corruption.

"At this point, I am not really confident. I am scared for America," said Dalke, a Democrat whose elderly sister is facing the prospect of losing her job. "We seem to have lost what made us great."

The poll found only about 4 in 10 voters having some, or a lot, of faith in the federal government making the right decisions for them, while little more than 3 in 10 felt the same way about state government.

Although Democratic voters were generally supportive of their leadership in Congress and the statehouse, their leaders have reason to worry about the independent voters who are key to the Nov. 2 general election.

Six in 10 independent voters had little faith in the decisions of the federal government, and nearly 7 in 10 felt the same way about state government. Predictably, out-of-power Republicans were even more pessimistic about government decisions at the federal and state levels.

"Beyond the healthy skepticism that people have always had about government, they're seeing now that it's just not working, it's not getting them a job, it's not getting them hope in their lives," said David Yepsen, a national political reporter who now heads the Paul Simon Institute of Public Policy at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.

"People have turned inward, and I think a lot of them are turning away from politics," Yepsen said. "It's particularly pronounced in Illinois. They're beyond laughing at their crooked politicians. It's beyond a laughing matter anymore. There's a huge ethical mess and a huge fiscal mess."

Though some disaffected, conservative voters have turned toward the tea party movement and its promotion of limited government and taxation, it appears to have gained only limited traction in the state.

The poll found 37 percent of voters said a tea party endorsement made no difference in deciding a candidate to support and 31 percent said an endorsement would make them more likely to vote against a candidate. Only 18 percent of voters said a tea party-backed candidate would be more likely to get their vote.

Even among Republicans, and those who called themselves conservatives, a plurality of voters said tea party support made no difference in their choice of a candidate.

While Illinois remains a Democratic state, the advantage Democrats have held over Republicans has fallen significantly from previous Tribune polls.

Currently, 37 percent of voters identify themselves as Democrats and 27 percent say they're Republicans -- a 10-percentage-point differential that is about half the advantage Democrats had entering the 2008 election. Another 31 percent call themselves political independents.

Still, the Democratic dominance of the state revealed itself when voters were asked which party they would like to see win control of Congress.

Despite national polls forecasting a potential wave for Republicans that could let them recapture the House, 45 percent of Illinois voters said Democrats should maintain control of Congress, compared with 37 percent who back the GOP.

Independent voters, by a narrow 34 percent to 28 percent advantage, said they wanted to see a Republican takeover in Congress. But in a sign of dissatisfaction with the federal government, 1 in 5 independents said they'd like neither party to win control.

Yet voters appear more satisfied with their choices for statewide office this time than four years ago, when the race for governor against an already tarnished Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Republican rival Judy Baar Topinka divided the electorate.

This time, 52 percent of voters said they were at least somewhat satisfied with their choices for governor, while 40 percent said they weren't satisfied. In the contest for U.S. Senate featuring two candidates with credibility issues, more voters than not were at least somewhat satisfied, 49 percent to 41 percent.

But the poll indicated the recent conviction of Blagojevich on one count of lying to federal agents -- one of 24 corruption counts he faced -- will not play heavily on the minds of voters.

A total of 83 percent of the voters said Blagojevich's conviction will make no difference in whether they oppose or support Democratic candidates on the ballot.