COLUMBUS — In this divisive election year, Ohioans agree on two things:
They are not happy.
And they doubt the presidential candidates will change that.
Some 63 percent believe the nation is on the wrong track, compared to 38 percent saying it’s on the right track, according to a poll conducted for Ohio media outlets by the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.
Some of the respondents answered open-ended questions with exasperation:
“Neither of the candidates seems fit to hold the office of president.”
“Congress can’t get together on anything.”
“Everything is a mess.”
There were fears of world war and another depression.
A deep frustration both with the federal government and its inability to address even the most basic problems has created fundamental changes in the political dynamic of 2016.
Coupled with that is a deep skepticism about whether either party’s presumptive candidate — Democrat Hillary Clinton or Republican Donald Trump — can fix things.
Fifty-eight percent of respondents said the presidential candidates are doing either a “poor” or “very poor” job of addressing the issues, an indication there isn’t a lot of hope the candidates will be able to effectively meet the widespread concerns. Only 16 percent said the candidates are doing a “good” or “excellent” job of addressing Americans’ concerns.
And that’s largely before Ohioans are targeted yet again with of millions of dollars in campaign advertising seeking to sway voters to one side or the other — or to force them out of the election process altogether.
Much of the pessimism revolves around the candidates themselves.
Crystal Kramer, 36, of Toledo, a stay-at-home mom and National Guard veteran of Iraq, says she believes Trump is the more straightforward of the two.
“With Donald Trump what you see is what you get. I don’t believe there’s a hidden agenda,” she said.
As far as Clinton: “I believe she would say what she thinks the consensus is, but I think she has a lot of things that may be hidden.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Amanda Huff, 32, of Toledo, a stay-at-home mom, said she would back the former secretary of state over the New York billionaire.
“He has no background in government,” she said. “The lower and middle class definitely would suffer.”
Lima retiree Patrick Easley also expressed dissatisfaction with both Tump and Clinton, noting that their personality and track record would be the main factors that help him decide which way to vote.
“You have to go by what they’ve done in the past,” he said. “We probably do need Trump, but I don’t know if we’d survive him or not. With Hillary, do you want her husband back in the White House again? I really don’t know.”
While unified in their frustration, Ohioans are split on both the key issues that face their state and how to address them. The largest share, 26 percent, indicated that economic issues were a priority this election cycle. But that umbrella covers everything from income inequality to jobs to trade to poverty.
If anything, the survey underscored that Ohio as a state — a political bellwether that is a microcosm of the nation — may be virtually impossible to satisfy.
The poll was conducted by the Bliss Institute for The Ohio Media Project, a collaborative of major daily newspapers and television and radio stations, including The Lima News.
The news outlets have pledged to work together in representing the concerns of Ohioans in the 2016 election through polling, public conversation and online engagement on the Your Vote Ohio Facebook page.
Funding for the project comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, with Bliss, the Akron Beacon Journal and the nonpartisan Jefferson Center public research organization leading the effort.
Through an unusual approach to polling by Bliss director John Green, the survey allowed respondents to define the issues themselves rather than select from a list of pre-determined prompts. What came through the most clearly was the frustration of Ohioans.
“The frustration is really uniform, but people have different ideas not only of what the specific problems are but how they might be addressed,” Green said. “Because there’s this sense that the issues have not been addressed effectively by political leaders whether on one issue or another, there is this kind of openness to something new.”
He said he was particularly struck by the dissatisfaction with the political process itself. Such exasperation, he said, has rarely been a top priority.
These types of sentiments may speak to Republican Donald Trump’s appeal. So many people, Green said, are unhappy with “the system” that Trump can stay relatively steady in the polls despite insulting so many different groups of people.
“It could very well be that a lot of people are so hungry for some kind of change that behavior that normally wouldn’t be tolerated from politicians is tolerated,” Green said. “Because everything really is that different. Whatever you can say about Donald Trump, he’s not politics as usual.”
The perception that the system is broken and corrupt also is a key factor in the popularity of Sen. Bernie Sanders, who identified as a socialist before running as a Democrat, Green said.
But it’s deeper than that.
Beyond the cynicism with the process itself, “there’s frustration because certain problems are not being addressed,” the political science professor said. Promises of sustained job growth, as well as issues such as tensions between communities and law enforcement; highly publicized crimes; a growing drug problem; and abortion, are collectively making Ohioans feel the people they put in office are merely spinning their wheels.
“The government isn’t responding to these real problems,” Green said.
“I’ve seen this before in polling and read about this in history,” he said. “Things reach a point where people of all backgrounds are so frustrated that they’re willing to try something completely new … when people get really, really frustrated, they’re much more likely to accept things that are a big departure from the norm.”
The open-ended poll of 1,000 Ohioans was conducted for Bliss by the Center for Marketing and Opinion Research in Akron from mid-April to mid-May and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percent. The respondents were not identified to the news media group.
Among the survey’s findings:
•Eighty percent identified economic issues as “very important” to their 2016 vote — but again, that topic encompassed jobs, income inequality and several other issues.
“Bring back manufacturing … remove the liberals from the country, deregulate” said one respondent worried about poverty and economic inequality.
Green said, “You see a pretty sharp dichotomy between people worried about jobs and people worried about poverty and inequality.”
Jobs and inequality aren’t unrelated, he said, but they’re conceptually different things. Jobs, he said, is “about the availability of employment.” Income inequality could address those who are employed but “can’t earn enough money to be above the poverty line.”
•Public policy issues, including government spending, taxes, health care, education, veterans, welfare, the environment and infrastructure, came in second, with 22 percent of those polled identifying those type of issues as the most important facing the country.
“We are a family with children without health care … (but) paying for benefits for foreigners,” said a respondent most concerned about health-care costs.
“The biggest concern I would have is with college and having to pay for that,” Elida native and recent college graduate Devin Fernandez said. “Financial aid is a huge issue for me.”
“I think government’s too big.,” said Helen Demers, 70, of Beavercreek, talking about the direction of the country. “I think the welfare system — the entitlement system — is too big and it discourages people from realizing their potential. Sometimes people have to dig a little bit before they’re able to discover what it is they can do and how they can do it.”
•Nineteen percent thought the biggest problem was with politics or politicians themselves, including lack of cooperation, special interests, money and corruption.
“Politicians should think more about the people rather than themselves,” said one respondent.
“Get rid of all the politicians,” said another.
•Public order — such as racism, morals, rights, abortion, sexuality, crime, violence and guns — was the most important issue for 15 percent, while foreign policy — such as national defense, terrorism or immigration — was the top issue for 13 percent.
“I think we’re faced with racial issues and I definitely won’t vote for Trump,” said Janet Higgins, 66, a Columbus retiree. “We need someone in office who is unprejudiced. Trump is a racist.”
“We don’t want to retract and go back to bigotry,” Rev. Bob Horton of Lima said. “We don’t want to go back to putting down anybody. We need to bring everyone up and help them with jobs.”
Another respondent said abortion was the top issue of the campaign. “It’s murder; it’s against God’s rules, against God’s laws,” the respondent said.
Barbara Eisenbrandt, 60, of Toledo, wants to see more gun control.
“We need more control over who’s buying the guns and for what reason,” she said.
Eisenbrandt is not a Donald Trump fan.
“I think he’ll cause more harm than good because of his lack of self-control,” Eisenbrandt said. “He loses his temper a lot more than he keeps the peace.”
Jeff McFellin, 67, of Ottawa Hills, meanwhile, said drug addiction is the biggest problem, and he sees a relationship with the influx of illegal immigrants from Mexico.
“I’m all for that wall that Donald Trump wants to build. I think it would keep the drug lords from coming over. That heroin epidemic is terrible,” he said.
•Except for southwestern Ohio, those in all geographic regions view economic problems as their top priority. In southwest Ohio, “political process problems” are first, with 26.5 percent of those polled identifying those issues as their top priority. In southwestern Ohio, economic problems are second, with 24 percent.
The poll demonstrated the diversity of opinions among Ohio voters who are themselves diverse, Green said.
All in all, he said, that’s a strong hint the government is never going to please everyone.
Craig Kelly, of The Lima News; Doug Livingston, of the Akron Beacon Journal; Randy Ludlow, of the Columbus Dispatch; Chris Stewart, of the Dayton Daily News; and Tom Troy, of The (Toledo) Blade, contributed to this story.