Results of a recent public opinion survey by the Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions show that registered voters in Rhode Island have little or no confidence in their elected officials.
The survey found that only 12 percent of registered Rhode Island voters have a "great deal" or "good amount" of confidence in public officials to make the right decisions for the state's future, a number that the poll's administrator found particularly alarming. "We expected some level of disconcertedness, but we were very surprised by the numbers," said Marion Orr, the center's director.
The center's analysis of the poll acknowledged the dire state of the economy, and postulated that the repercussions of the nation's economic recession could be devastating Rhode Island voters' confidence in elected officials. Orr said he believes the reality of a struggling national economy has affected confidence nationwide. "Nationally," he said, "I think there is this low level of confidence that people have in their government."
Rhode Island's unemployment rate for January 2010 hit 12.7 percent, a full 3 points above the national average.
The results — such as the belief held by 74 percent of respondents that the economic stimulus package hasn't helped their personal financial situation — seem to support Orr's claim. The survey found that discontent with public officials extends beyond state leaders.
President Barack Obama's approval rating dropped to 44 percent in the poll, 9 points below the center's September 2009 poll.
Frustrations with elected officials, however, extend further than the immediate problems presented by the struggling economy. Naoko Shibusawa, who lives in Cranston, cited the ongoing war in Iraq and the state's underperforming public education system as other points of discontent. "I don't know how many times I've called (government offices) to complain," she said.
But Shibusawa, an assistant professor of history, conceded that ultimately the responsibility lies with the voters who elect their representatives.
And voters seem poised to seek new representation. The survey indicated that if the general election were held today, independent gubernatorial candidate Lincoln Chafee '75, a former senior fellow at the Watson Institute, would defeat both his Democratic and Republican rivals. "It seems like this low level of confidence suggests an opportunity for someone like Chafee," Orr said, echoing the center's findings. "I think that this is a fertile ground for challengers." The results could signal the possibility of gains for unaffiliated candidates in a state deemed the nation's most heavily Democratic by Gallup last year.
"For anyone who has any ambition to run for public office," Orr added, "I think now is the time."
The survey, conducted Feb. 9–12 by researchers at the Taubman Center and the John Hazen White Public Opinion Laboratory, was based on a random sample of 605 statewide registered voters. According to the Center's press release, the survey had a margin of error of about plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.