(covering polls and related articles from the week of May 3–9)

In this edition of Public Opinion Watch:

  • Pessimism on Iraq Deepens
  • If the Economy’s Doing So Well, Why Do Voters Think Bush Is Doing Such a Lousy Job?
  • Yes, Bad News Does Hurt Bush (Part Deux)

Pessimism on Iraq Deepens

NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of 1,012 registered voters, released May 6 (conducted May 1–3)
ABC News/Washington Post poll of 802 adults, released May 8 (conducted May 5–6)

In the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, only 33 percent of voters say that the country is going in the right direction, compared to 50 percent who say it is off on the wrong track. And it’s just 25 percent among independents.

That kind of negative sentiment can’t be explained simply on the basis of economic pessimism (see below) or of other domestic problems, grave as they may be. Voter pessimism about the direction of the country also is tied to the sense that our foreign policy in general, and Iraq policy in particular, are in a shambles.

In the NBC News poll, Bush’s job rating on foreign policy is down to 43 percent approval/51 percent disapproval, his worst rating ever in that poll. And in the latest Ipsos-AP poll, his rating on handling foreign policy and terrorism (my emphasis) is down to just 50 percent.

The reasons for these low ratings are not too hard to find, as the public ponders the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, the growing power of extremist Shiite leader Moqtada Sadr, escalating U.S. casualties, and the complete lack of a plausible exit strategy. They have come to the conclusion that the situation is out of control—quite literally. By 60 percent to 34 percent, voters say that the United States is not in control of the situation in Iraq.

They also say, by 64 percent to 19 percent, that the Iraqi people will not be ready to take over and run their country by June 30 and, by 51 percent to 27 percent. that Iraq will not be able to establish and maintain a stable, democratic government. The latter finding reverses a March reading on the same question where, by 46 percent to 40 percent, voters thought that Iraqis would be able to maintain a stable, democratic government.

Finally, voters today think that removing Saddam Hussein from power was not worth the number of U.S. military casualties and associated financial costs (47 percent 42 percent). That’s another change from two months ago when voters thought that removing Saddam was worth the casualties and costs by 50 percent to 44 percent.

So voters are deeply pessimistic about what’s going on in Iraq and are increasingly convinced that the war hasn’t been worth the effort and lives we have put into it. In fact, according to the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, 60 percent of Americans now are willing to say that we’ve “gotten bogged down in Iraq.” Shades of Vietnam! And, as was the case with Vietnam, it sounds like the public is losing interest in staying the course and becoming oriented instead toward how we can extricate ourselves from this particular quagmire. In short, they want to know: “How do we get out of Iraq?” Thus far, John Kerry, while obviously critical of how Bush has conducted the Iraq war and occupation, has not addressed this question head-on.

In the end, as public opinion continues to shift, that may not be a viable approach. Michelle Goldberg had a good article in Salon on May 10, “Time to Get Out?“, that raises the issue directly and outlines the debate that is starting to emerge around it. In the article, she summarizes pollster John Zogby’s position as “Kerry should start talking about exit strategy … he should offer voters the prospect of ending the war, even if that prospect remains vague.”

Based on the way public opinion is trending, he may be on to something.

If the Economy’s Doing So Well, Why Do Voters Think Bush Is Doing Such a Lousy Job?

NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of 1,012 registered voters, released May 6 (conducted May 1–3)
John Harwood, “Despite Recovery, Bush Is Facing Doubts on the Economy, Poll Finds,” Wall Street Journal, May 6

Greeted with the usual histrionics by the press (exceeds expectations! second straight month of strong growth!), last Friday’s jobs report indicated that 288,000 jobs were added to the economy in April. Is the economy about to bail Bush out politically?

Not likely. First, let’s put these numbers in perspective. Adding 288,000 jobs, while excellent by recent standards, actually remains below the administration’s own job growth projections of 306,000 a month, made by the Council of Economic Advisers when the 2003 tax cuts were passed one year ago. So far they’ve hit that figure only once (last month) and they continue to be well on track for an extraordinary negative job growth record over the course of Bush’s administration. In addition, recent job growth has, so far, failed to alter the stagnation in wage and salary growth that currently afflicts the labor market. (For more detail on all this, see the Economic Policy Institute’s excellent Job Watch site.)

Second, let’s look at the numbers from the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, conducted May 1–3; that is, right after the month when the 288,000 jobs were added. Key findings from the poll were well-summarized by the Wall Street Journal’s John Harwood:

[Poll] results reflect a mood closer to the unsuccessful 1992 re-election campaign of the current president’s father than to prevailing sentiment during Bill Clinton’s successful bid for a second term in 1996. Only 42 percent say they are better off than four years ago, compared with 33 percent who say they are worse off and 23 percent reporting “about the same.” Pluralities of political independents, swing voters and senior citizens say they have become worse off under Mr. Bush.

Voters remain skeptical [about the economy]. Disapproval of Mr. Bush’s handling of the economy, 53 percent to 41 percent, represents the weakest showing of his presidency. After months of high-profile discussion of job losses, the proportion of Americans who expect better times in the next year has fallen to 42 percent from 50 percent in January. By 51 percent to 40 percent voters say Mr. Bush’s tax cuts were too large, while a 63 percent majority shrugs off recent stock-market gains as benefiting “only businesses and investors,” not “nearly all Americans.”

The problem for the administration is that voters respond mostly to the economic situation on the ground, not “good” economic statistics. Economic growth in 1992, for example, was pretty good—close to what we are experiencing this year—but that didn’t help Bush’s father much.

Another example, less widely known, is 1994 and its comparison to 1996. 1994 was actually quite a good year not just for economic growth, but also for job growth—better, in fact, than 2004 is likely to be. In March 1994, the economy added 468,000 jobs and in April, 357,000 jobs; about 3.9 million jobs were added over the year as a whole. But wage decline and income stagnation continued during that year, economic pessimism failed to lift and, as a result, the incumbent Democrats never got the lift from the economy’s performance that they thought they would.

In contrast, in 1996, not only were overall economic and job growth good, but the labor market was also delivering strong wage and income growth. As a result, economic optimism soared, starting in the spring of that year, helping Clinton to an easy reelection victory.

All this suggests that Bush will continue to be in trouble on the economy until and unless it starts performing like the mid-1990s Clinton economy. Here’s some more evidence suggesting that current economic pessimism is unlikely to go away any time soon.

First, both the new ARG poll and the new Ipsos-AP poll have Bush’s approval rating on the economy down to the lowest levels yet recorded by these polls (38 percent and 43 percent, respectively). Apparently, voters haven’t yet absorbed the good news about how the economy, according to Bush, is “strong and getting stronger” and about how “tax relief is working.”

And here’s a result from the NBC News poll that crisply captures voters’ current economic pessimism and the difficulties Bush is going to have turning that pessimism around. By two to one (60 percent to 31 percent) voters agree that “on the basis of what I see for the future, the signs point to an economy that is going to be in trouble—jobs are moving overseas, the budget deficit is growing, and too many jobs do not have health insurance or pensions,” rather than “on the basis of what I see for the future, the signs point to an economy that is going to be strong—jobs are being created, inflation is low, and the stock market is up.”

Clearly, voters’ economic pessimism is deeply rooted in a wide range of economic problems that have uniformly gotten worse on Bush’s watch. And it’s not likely to go away because we’ve finally got some good monthly job numbers. In the immortal words of Ricky Ricardo, Bush’s still “got a lot of ‘splainin’ to do.”

Yes, Bad News Does Hurt Bush (Part Deux)

David W. Moore and Frank Newport, “Bush Approval on Iraq, Economy and Terrorism at Low Points,” Gallup Organization, May 6

As I have repeatedly argued, the best way to look at the presidential race is that it is a referendum on the incumbent. Kerry backers, therefore, should take heart from how poorly—and increasingly so—Bush is doing in the eyes of voters. The release of the May 2–4 Gallup poll provides abundant support for that viewpoint.

There’s even some good news for Kerry on the horse race numbers people have been obsessing about. Kerry is now tied with Bush in Gallup’s registered voter (RV) match-up (47 percent to 47 percent), an improvement from his 46 percent to 50 percent performance in their mid-April poll. The same pattern can be seen in Gallup’s likely voter (LV) version of this match-up, with Kerry ahead 49 percent to 48 percent, compared to lagging 46 percent to 51 percent in mid-April.

Note also that, continuing a pattern I’ve noted of late, Kerry is doing better in the battleground states than overall. In an LV Kerry-Bush-Nader match-up (the only relevant data Gallup provides), Kerry is ahead of Bush by four points (48 percent to 44 percent) in the “purple states,” while tied in the national race.

But the really important findings here are how dreadfully Bush is doing in every area Gallup asked about. In terms of whether people are satisfied or dissatisfied with way things in the country are going, 36 percent say satisfied and 62 percent say dissatisfied—the worst rating of his presidency.

Bush’s overall approval rating is now 49 percent approve/48 percent disapprove, tied for the worst of his presidency. And here are his approval ratings in four specific areas, all the worst of his presidency: the economy, 41 percent approve/56 percent disapprove; foreign affairs, 42 percent approve /53 percent disapprove; the situation in Iraq, 42 percent approve/55 percent disapprove; and terrorism, 52 percent approve/45 percent disapprove(!).

Even Bush’s strong areas aren’t so strong anymore. That’s got to worry someone who needs to win a referendum on his presidency.

Ruy Teixeria is a joint fellow at the Center for American Progress and The Century Foundation.

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Ruy Teixeira

Former Senior Fellow