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New poll reveals economic pessimism and dissatisfaction with democratic institutions

New poll reveals economic pessimism and dissatisfaction with democratic institutions

As the state emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, some residents of South Dakota are uneasy about what life holds for future generations and have only limited confidence in the effectiveness of some democratic institutions.

The findings are part of a large set of results from a recent poll of 500 South Dakota residents conducted in a partnership between South Dakota News Watch and the Chiesman Center for Democracy at the University of South Dakota. The poll is part of an ongoing, expanding effort by News Watch called “South Dakota Matters,” which seeks to use statewide polls and online panel discussions to delve deeply into topics of critical importance to South Dakotans.

The poll questions revealed a mix of widely varying results.

While the economic questions in the poll show that some state residents remain hopeful for the future and have done a good job in saving money and preparing for retirement, a few questions spurred responses that showed a statistically relevant level of pessimism. Meanwhile, questions related to democratic institutions generally did not reveal confidence in federal government, but respondents did show confidence in local police, local government and the military.

The poll was conducted by Pulse Research of Oregon during the week of April 21-27, 2021, and was constructed by USD Professor Shane Nordyke and News Watch Executive Director Rob Joyce and Content Director Bart Pfankuch.

Respondents were contacted by phone and were roughly representative of the broader state population in regard to gender, age, and political affiliation. The poll included Native American respondents, though they were under-represented compared with the statewide Native population. The median income of the poll respondents was about 30% higher than that of the entire state. The margin of error is plus or minus four percentage points.

Based on the poll results, News Watch will publish three articles and host an online panel discussion related to the findings, to include:

  • This article, which provides information on the poll and the overall results.
  • An article in the coming days providing expert analysis of poll results indicating some pessimism among respondents over the state economy and the outlook for future generations.
  • An article the following week examining the poll finding in which respondents viewed the statewide ballot initiative process highly favorably.
  • An online panel discussion with economists who will discuss and take questions about the economic questions posed in the poll; the virtual event will take place on Thursday, June 3, at 7:30 p.m. Central. Details on how to watch and participate in the discussion will be released soon.

“The launch of South Dakota Matters is part of the evolution and growth of South Dakota News Watch into an organization that convenes communities and asks important questions in order to enhance the knowledge of the public and policymakers in our state,” said Randell Beck, co-chair of the News Watch Board of Directors. “Through polls like this, and with in-depth online discussions, News Watch is expanding beyond its consistent in-depth reporting on important topics in order to further fulfill its mission to ‘inform, enlighten and illuminate’ the people of South Dakota.”

Continue reading to learn some of the key findings from the poll, to see some details on the poll itself, and to discover how respondents answered each question.

A full report on the poll, the results and further demographic breakdowns by the Chiesman Center for Democracy will be publicly available soon.

General findings

Here are some general findings from the poll:

  • Respondents showed great dissatisfaction with how democracy is working in America right now, and political party division and distrust of competing parties is high. Almost 65% of respondents were very or somewhat dissatisfied with how democracy is working, and nearly a third thought members of the opposing political party posed a “very serious threat” to America and its people.
  • Respondents overall have a very little confidence in the effectiveness of the executive branch, of Congress, of political parties and of the press. They have a mixed level of confidence in the courts, state government and colleges and universities. They have very strong confidence in the military, local government and local police.
  • Compared with Democrats and Independents, Republicans were much less confident in the executive branch, Congress, the courts, colleges and universities, political parties and the press. Democrats and Independents had far less confidence in state government than Republicans.
  • Respondents overall support the citizen ballot initiative process and do not want the state Legislature to make it harder for initiatives to appear on the ballot.
  • Compared with Republicans, Democrats and Independents were much more supportive of citizen ballot initiatives as an important part of the democratic process and felt more strongly that the Legislature should not make it more difficult.
  • When asked if life is better for themselves compared with their parents at the same stage of life, nearly half of all respondents said they are doing the same or worse financially. Compared with men, women were less likely to say they were better off financially than their parents.
  • When asked if life will be better or worse for their children or future generations, nearly three-quarters of all respondents said life will be the same or worse. Only one in five respondents said they expect life will be better for future generations in South Dakota.
  • Compared with Democrats and Independents, Republicans were less likely to expect that life for future generations will be better. Compared with women, men were far more likely to report that life will be the same or worse for future generations.
  • Three out of five respondents said they have three months’ worth of expenses in a savings account, though it is important to note that the median income of respondents was significantly higher than the rest of the state of South Dakota.
  • Only a quarter of respondents felt “very secure” about how much money they have saved for retirement; about three quarters felt only somewhat secure or not secure at all.
  • More than half of respondents said they were doing better financially than five years ago; about one in five said they were doing worse.

Background of people polled

Here are some facts about the 500 people who responded to the poll:

Median annual household income — $75,000 (statewide median household income is $58,000)

Median age — 50 years old

Race/ethnicity — 83% white, 4.5% Native American, 1.3% Hispanic, 0.9% black, 3.1% mixed race

Self-reported political party affiliation — 45.3% Republican, 27.6% Independent, 21.3% Democrat, 5.8% undeclared

Rural/urban residency — 50.9% rural, 45.9% urban, 3.2% undeclared; residents from all counties were represented

Gender — 50.6% female, 49.4% male

Poll results

Question 1: How satisfied are you with how democracy is working in the United States?

Very Dissatisfied — 38.2%

Somewhat Dissatisfied — 26.7%

Neither Satisfied Nor Dissatisfied — 9.4%

Somewhat Satisfied — 21.3%

Very Satisfied — 3.8%

Don’t know — 0.6%

Question 2: How often do you think that members of the opposing party still have the best interests of the country in mind?

All of the time — 2.0%

Most of the time — 7.3%

Some of the time — 41.7%

None of the time — 43.2%

Don’t know — 5.8%

Question 3: Do you believe that members of the opposing party are a threat to the United states and its people?

Very Serious Threat — 31.4%

Somewhat Serious Threat — 27.3%

Minor Threat — 18.0%

No Threat — 17.7%

Don’t know — 5.7%

Question 4: How much confidence do you have in the following institutions?

On a scale of 1 to 4, where 1 equals “no confidence” and 4 equals “a great deal of confidence.” Note: numbers may not total 100%.

The executive branch

1 No confidence — 41.0%

2 — 21.8%

3 — 22.4%

4 A great deal of confidence — 12.4%


1 No confidence — 41.0%

2 — 36.0%

3 — 17.9%

4 A great deal of confidence — 3.0%

The courts

1 No confidence — 20.2%

2 — 29.5%

3 — 36.5%

4 A great deal of confidence — 11.7%

The military

1 No confidence — 3.7%

2 — 9.1%

3 — 29.7%

4 A great deal of confidence — 56.5%

State government

1 No confidence — 20.9%

2 — 25.1%

3 — 28.4%

4 A great deal of confidence — 23.8%

Local government

1 No confidence — 10.5%

2 — 22.4%

3 — 38.9%

4 A great deal of confidence — 25.9%

Local police

1 No confidence — 5.8%

2 — 11.4%

3 — 29.1%

4 A great deal of confidence — 52.4%

Colleges and universities

1 No confidence — 18.5%

2 — 22.0%

3 — 31.8%

4 A great deal of confidence — 22.2%

Political parties

1 No confidence — 39.6%

2 — 40.4%

3 — 13.2%

4 A great deal of confidence — 2.1%

The press

1 No confidence — 54.4%

2 — 21.5%

3 — 15.8%

4 A great deal of confidence — 6.4%

Question 5: Please indicate your level of agreement with the following statements:

Citizen ballot initiatives are an important part of the democratic process.

Strongly Disagree — 6.6%

Disagree — 6.2%

Neither Disagree nor Agree — 9.3%

Agree — 34.9%

Strongly Agree — 39.9%

Don’t know — 3.1%

The South Dakota legislature should make it more difficult for citizen initiatives to get onto the ballot.

Strongly Disagree — 35.5%

Disagree — 27.1%

Neither Disagree nor Agree — 13.5%

Agree — 17.7%

Strongly Agree — 6.3%

Democracy is always preferable.

Strongly Disagree — 3.1%

Disagree — 6.0%

Neither Disagree nor Agree — 9.5%

Agree — 38.9%

Strongly Agree — 42.6%

Non-democracies can be preferable.

Strongly Disagree — 37.2%

Disagree — 29.2%

Neither Disagree nor Agree — 16.0%

Agree — 15.3%

Strongly Agree — 2.4%

Question 6: Compared to your parents at the same stage of life that you are now, do you feel you are doing better, the same, or worse financially?

Better off — 50.1%

The same — 24.5%

Worse — 24.2%

Don’t know — 1.1%

Question 7: Do you feel you are doing better, the same, or worse financially than you were five years ago?

Better off — 57.0%

The same — 25.2%

Worse — 17.8%

Question 8: Do you have three months of expenses in a savings account today?

Yes — 63.9%

No — 32.8%

Unsure — 3.3%

Question 9: How secure do you feel in how much money you have set aside for retirement?

Not at all secure — 28.6%

Somewhat secure — 45.6%

Very secure — 23.8%

Don’t know — 2.0%

Question 10: Do you expect life will be better, the same or worse for your children or future generations of South Dakotans?

Better off — 21.1%

The same — 19.8%

Worse — 52.4%

Don’t know — 6.8%

Question 11: To what extent do you agree with each of the following statements?

The South Dakota government has taken steps to help improve my financial stability.

Strongly Disagree — 12.3%

Disagree — 24.1%

Neither Disagree nor Agree — 21.5%

Agree — 32.5%

Strongly Agree 8.5%

Don’t know — 1.1%

The federal government has taken steps to help improve my financial stability.

Strongly Disagree — 26.8%

Disagree — 27.5%

Neither Disagree nor Agree — 14.9%

Agree — 23.8%

Strongly Agree — 6.2%

Don’t know — 0.8%