(USA TODAY) -- The sharp political divide that Americans say they hate may be becoming the new normal.
A USA TODAY/Bipartisan Policy Center poll taken this month, the fourth in a year-long series, shows no change in the overwhelming consensus that U.S. politics have become more divided in recent years.
But sentiments have shifted significantly during the past year about whether the nation's unyielding political divide is a positive or a negative. In February 2013, Americans said by nearly 4-1 that the heightened division is a bad thing because it makes it harder to get things done.
In the new poll, the percentage who describe the divide as bad has dropped by nearly 20 percentage points, to 55% from 74%. And the number who say it's a good thing — because it gives voters a real choice — has doubled to 40% from 20%.
"Honestly, I feel like Congress is designed to be slow, so it could be frustrating but that's how they are designed to be," Gage Egurrola, 23, a salesman from Caldwell, Idaho, who was among those surveyed. "It helps stop bad policies."
Shar Wright, 65, of Bodfish, Calif., disagrees. "I think this is the new normal, and I think it's terrible," she says. "They're putting their own agendas first and they should be voting on what the people want and what the country needs. What we need is a lot more care, a lot more concern and a lot less of tomfoolery."
The shift in public opinion toward Egurrola's view may reflect broadening acceptance of Washington's polarization as an inevitable fact of life. Skepticism about the government's ability to solve big problems, fueled by concerns about the Affordable Care Act, could play a part as well. It sets a landscape that could boost Republicans in the November elections, minimizing the impact of Democratic charges that GOP forces have been obstructionist.
Now, Americans say it's more important for their representative in Congress to stop bad laws than to pass new ones. On that, there is no partisan divide: 54% of Republicans and 51% of Democrats say blocking bad laws should be their priority.
The nationwide poll of 1,000 adults, taken by landline and cellphone March 3-6, has a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.
Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who conducted the poll in conjunction with Republican pollster Whit Ayres, cautions that seeing the political divide as a good thing is still a minority view, but he acknowledges it seems to be a growing one. "There's a feeling on the part of many people that in this environment where they don't see a lot of good that's happening, their goal is to have their member stop bad things from happening, and they see polarization as a way to do that," he says.
For many in the GOP, Ayres says, attitudes toward President Obama and the perception that he's unwilling to compromise are driving the shift in views. "Republicans in particular realize that the best they're going to do with a Democratic president and a Democratic Senate is stopping bad things," he says. "They believe that if you can stop the stimulus bill or stop Obamacare, that may be the best we can do — and that is a function of the divisions."
Republicans split almost evenly, 49%-47%, on whether the sharper partisan divide is a bad thing or a good thing. Democrats call it bad by 62%-35%, independents by 56%-38%.
Like it or not, Americans express few hopes that the friction that has prevented action even on issues on which most Americans agree — the need to overhaul immigration laws, for instance, or raise the minimum wage — is about to ease anytime soon. Nearly half predict Congress' job performance will stay the same over the next two years; one in five say it's likely to get worse.
Just 28% expect it to improve.
"It's the same old, same old," says Daniel McAvoy, 58, a retired police officer from Palm Coast, Fla. "Nothing changes with these people. They get in there and all of a sudden, it's about them and not about us."
WHAT VOTERS WANT
Americans have some clear ideas about what they want their representative in Congress to do:
Vote based on what their constituents want (80%), rather than on what their own conscience and experience would dictate (17%).
Work across party lines and be willing to compromise to devise solutions to the nation's problems (66%), rather than stick up for principles even if it means legislation to address serious problems doesn't pass (30%).
Spend more time in their home districts to stay in touch (67%), rather than in Washington to build relationships that would allow them to break the gridlock (27%).
That last finding underscores the difficulty of figuring out how, exactly, to encourage more cooperation across party lines. Washington veterans from Republican Trent Lott to Democrat Tom Daschle, both former Senate majority leaders, cite the trend of members minimizing their time in D.C. as one factor that has made it problematic to foster collaborative relationships.
By 70%-12%, those surveyed say their representatives should keep their families in their home districts, not move them to Washington.
In follow-up phone interviews, respondents offered some suggestions of their own:
Kimberly Lehman, 29, a stay-at-home mom from Newville, Pa.: "Kick the ones out that are in there to start; put some new people in there."
Gary Fowler, 52, of Throckmorton, Texas: "You shouldn't be able to spend any more on a campaign than they will make when they get in. When you spend $40 million on an election, you've sold your vote before you're even in office."
Vincent Wise Jr., 33, an artist from Queens, N.Y.: "We need a genuine independent party."
Mollie Fenton, 63, a retiree from Walla Walla, Wash.: "They need to have a term (limit), just like the president, that they are not allowed to stay in Congress for as long as some of them have."
The qualities Americans rate most positively for members of Congress are independence, solving problems and getting results. Those assessments didn't vary significantly across party lines. The characteristics that got uniformly negative ratings: Partisanship and confrontation.
Voters' reaction to those traits help explain why Congress is seen so negatively by so many. They value compromise and action; they see pitched partisanship and gridlock.
"I just wonder, do they even pay attention to us, what we say?" asks Maria Martinez, 45, of Hereford, Texas. "Do they just sit around all day or do they really get down to the nitty-gritty? They really just need to pay attention to whoever gets them there, and I don't really know how you can fix that."
ISO THE POSITIVE
Just how much do Americans dislike Congress?
In search of the positive, the USA TODAY/BPC poll asked what respondents liked most about the legislative branch. By an overwhelming margin, the first choice among five options was the least flattering one: "We can kick them out if they don't do what we want."
That was cited by 39% of those surveyed, although in fact incumbents are rarely defeated. Another 19% said they appreciate Congress' role in providing a check on the power of the president. Just 15% agreed with the characteristic often named by House members themselves, that their branch of government is closest to the people.
"I like that there's representation from every state and that you get a large array of opinions from the whole nation," says Nathan Pepper, 31, a computer programmer from Burbank, Calif.
At first, Meghan Sunday-Davis, 24, a nurse from Cincinnati, can't think of anything she likes about Congress. Then she adds: "I like that they think they are trying to help people, I guess." Even if she gives them points for trying, though, she faults them for not delivering.
"They never come down to the real world. They think they are helping people, but it's just not working," she says. "I know people have their firm beliefs, but you have to have some wiggle room, some movement, and work together instead of being bone-headed."
Crushingly negative assessments of Congress have become familiar. In this poll, 77% disapprove of Congress, 19% approve. The intensity of feeling is one-sided: Half say they strongly disapprove; just 2% strongly approve. "Congress' place among the least popular institutions in American life remains secure," Ayres and Mellman began their analysis of the findings.
Asked what they dislike most about Congress, this trait ranked first: "They spend too much time fighting with each other." In the poll, 27% chose that; another 20% complain that "special interests have too much influence."
Still, Americans continue to be more likely to approve of their particular representative than of Congress as a whole. By 52%-34%, those surveyed approve of their own member of the House. Even those who want wholesale change aren't inclined to think that necessarily means defeating the representative of their district.
Interestingly, 20% say they have met their own representative, a factor that boosted their standing. Sixty percent of those who had met the local member of Congress gave him or her a positive job rating, compared with 50% of those who hadn't. "He was very approachable," Tara Brooks, 35, of Vergennes, Vt., said. Matthew Spencer of Topeka, Kan., recalls the help his congressman's staff volunteered, including follow-up calls, when his house was flooded.
Three of four, 76%, agreed with this statement: "Whatever I think about Congress as a whole, in the next election I'm going to evaluate the candidates who are running and vote for whoever is better, whether or not they are already a member of Congress."
One in five, 19%, agreed with this instead: "I am so upset with Congress that in the next election I am going to vote against my member of Congress whether I like and agree with him or not."
Spencer has voted Republican in the past but plans to take a more independent-minded look for the midterm elections in November.
"I used to vote strictly on gun control and my hunting and fishing rights," the 41-year-old Topeka truck driver says. "Now I'm going to have to take a deeper look at my family and what's going to put me in the best financial situation as far as taxes. Those will be the reasons that will get me out to vote." He's particularly concerned about the impact of the Affordable Care Act, which he says has increased his out-of-pocket costs for health insurance.
"These next elections are going to be big," he says. "There's too much on the table."