The So-Called Bush Bounce

Ipsos/Cook Political Report poll of 1,001 adults, released October 10, 2003 (conducted Oct. 7–9, 2003)
Frank Newport and Lydia Saad, “Bush Job Approval Up Despite Iraq, Economy,” Gallup Organization, Oct. 14, 2003
Princeton Survey Research poll of 1,004 adults for Newsweek, released Oct. 14, 2003 (conducted Oct. 9–10, 2003)
Washington Post/ABC News poll of 1,000 adults, released Oct. 14, 2003 (conducted Oct. 9–13, 2003)
Mike Allen and Claudia Deane, “President Rallying Support in Polls,” Washington Post, Oct. 15, 2003

Is Bush bouncing back? You’d think so, from coverage in the media, including the Oct. 14 story in the Washington Post, “President Rallying Support in Polls.” But there are several problems with this story line.

First, is it really a “bounce” or “rally”? That terminology implies his poll ratings are going up, but the evidence on this is mixed. Only the Gallup poll has an actual increase in Bush’s job approval rating, from 50 percent for Sept. 19–21 to 55 percent for October 6–8 and 56 percent for Oct. 10–12.

Other polls tell a different story. The Newsweek poll has Bush’s approval rating declining from 52 percent for Sept. 25–26 to 51 percent for October 9–10. Note that the latter Newsweek poll was taken exactly in between Gallup’s two polls that had Bush at 55 percent and 56 percent approval. The Ipsos/Cook Political Report poll also has Bush’s approval rating declining from 55 percent for September 16–18 to 51 percent for Oct. 7–9. And, again, the dates of the later Ipsos poll are close to those of the two later Gallup polls, especially the first one.

And here’s the kicker. The Post’s own poll (remember the headline about Bush “rallying support”?) has Bush’s approval rating declining from 58 percent on Sept. 10–13 to 54 percent for September 30 to 53 percent for October 10–13. And, once more, the dates of the later Post poll are close to the dates (actually a little later) than the dates of the Gallup polls.

So what’s going on? The Washington Post’s own data show a slowdown in Bush’s rate of decline, which you could stretch into a temporary stabilization of Bush’s approval rating, if you chose to treat the 54 percent and 53 percent readings as about the same. But “rally” or “bounce”? That’s really pushing it.

And speaking of “pushing it,” Public Opinion Watch has his suspicions that what’s really going on is that the Bushies got a few good readings from the Gallup folks and went into spin overdrive pushing their story that the president has bounced back. Check out who was quoted and cited in the Washington Post story about Bush’s “rally”: (1) unnamed Bush aides; (2) Bush himself; (3) Ken Mehlman, the Bush-Cheney campaign manager; (4) Representative Deborah Price, chairman of the House Republican Conference; (5) Matthew Dowd, the RNC pollster; and (6) Nicolle Devenish, the Bush-Cheney campaign’s communications director. Only at the end of the article do we finally get a critical quote from a Democrat, Edward Markey of Massachusetts.

Chalk one up for the Bush propaganda machine—especially since they managed to make headway with the “Bush bounce” storyline when most other data from these polls, including the Gallup polls, suggest intensifying political problems for the GOP. Consider these data from Gallup.

While Gallup measured Bush’s approval rating as going up, they also measured Bush’s approval ratings on the economy (42 percent approval and 55 percent disapproval), on foreign affairs (49 percent approval and 49 percent disapproval) and on the situation with Iraq (47 percent approval and 50 percent disapproval) as the worst of his presidency. His favorability rating, while higher at 60 percent, is also the lowest of his presidency.

The Gallup data also show just 22 percent rating the economy as good or excellent, one of the worst rating of his presidency, and only 42 percent saying that the situation in Iraq is going well, the lowest level of the year. Finally, sentiment has become more negative about whether Congress should authorize the additional $87 billion for Iraq and the war on terror, moving from 51 percent against and 46 percent for to 57 percent against and 41 percent for.

In the Newsweek poll, Bush’s approval ratings on foreign policy are 45 percent; on Iraq, 44 percent; on taxes, 43 percent; on the environment, 43 percent; on the economy, 38 percent; and on health care, 34 percent. And on whether Bush should be reelected or not, 44 percent say they would vote to reelect him, but 50 percent would not—worse than where Bush was two weeks ago before the beginning of this so-called bounce.

The Newsweek poll also finds that, at this point, more Americans (37 percent) think that the U.S. action against Iraq will increase the risk that large numbers of Americans will be killed or injured in future terror attacks than believe (25 percent) that risk will decrease (30 percent say the Iraq action will make no difference). Moreover, by 49 percent to 39 percent, the public now thinks that the administration misinterpreted or misanalyzed intelligence reports about Iraq’s WMDs and, for the first time, as many Americans now believe the administration purposely misled the public about Iraq’s WMDs to build support for war as believe they did not.

The Washington Post poll finds Bush doing worse than a month ago in terms of support for his reelection. More (47 percent) say they that would vote for the Democratic nominee than say they would vote for Bush (46 percent). The number who say the war in Iraq was worth fighting also fell seven points, to 54 percent, in the same time period and the number who say the number of military casualties in Iraq is unacceptable rose four points, to 59 percent, the highest level since the war began.

So, if this is what it looks like when Bush is “bouncing back,” it could be pretty grim for the GOP when he starts sinking again.

How Militant Are Democratic Primary Voters?

Greenberg Quinlan Rosner poll of 489 likely Iowa Democratic Caucus-goers, 536 likely New Hampshire Democratic primary voters, and 488 likely South Carolina Democrtic primary voters, released Oct. 16, 2003 (conducted Oct. 2–13, 2003)
Paul Krugman, “The Sweet Spot,” New York Times, Oct. 17, 2003

There’s a fear that the Democratic primary electorate is so far to the left of the typical voter that the Democratic nominee, in responding to the primary electorate, will move too far left to be electable. That’s certainly a possibility, but a new poll from Greenberg Quinlan Rosner (GQR) of likely voters in the New Hampshire and South Carolina Democratic primaries, as well as likely Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa, makes clear that the left militance of the Democratic primary electorate can easily be overstated.

Take the issue of Iraq. Sure, it’s true that 68 percent, 59 percent, and 74 percent, respectively, of these Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina voters say it’s very or somewhat important for the Democratic nominee to have opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning. But when asked whether they would prefer “a Democratic nominee who opposed the Iraq war from the beginning” or “a Democratic nominee who supported military action against Saddam Hussein but was critical of Bush for failing to win international support for the war,” the figures are 37 percent for the first choice and 59 percent for the second choice in Iowa, 35 percent and 58 percent in New Hampshire, and 41 percent and 50 percent in South Carolina. In other words, in each one of these states, more likely Democratic primary voters want a candidate with a nuanced opposition to Bush’s Iraq policy than want one who adamantly opposed to the war all along.

That indicates that Clark’s inconsistency on the war (suggesting that there might have been some legitimate reasons to have voted for the congressional resolution authorizing the use of force) is not as much of a liability with Democratic primary voters as generally assumed. Likewise, Dean’s intransigent opposition to the war should not be assumed to be an unalloyed boon with these same voters.

Or take the issue of tax cuts. Gephardt and Dean both have staked out positions calling for the repeal of all the Bush tax cuts. Presumably, most Democratic primary voters agree that these tax cuts were basically a bad idea. But that doesn’t mean that they necessarily agree that Gephardt and Dean have the best approach to the tax cut issue. Indeed, when these Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina voters are asked whether “we should repeal the entire Bush tax cut” (the Dean/Gephardt position) or “we should repeal the Bush tax cut for the richest one percent and keep the middle class tax cuts” (roughly speaking, the Clark/Kerry/Lieberman/Edwards position), they split down the middle, with slightly more for the second choice in Iowa and New Hampshire and slightly more for the first choice in South Carolina.

That suggests a targeted, rather than total, repeal of the Bush tax cuts has a good chance of finding favor with Democratic primary voters. And that’s a good thing for the Democrats. It is very difficult to construct a plausible political or polling-based argument that repealing the middle class tax cuts would play well in the general election. That’s the point made by Paul Krugman in his October 17 column, “The Sweet Spot.” Krugman, of course, sees the Bush tax cuts and associated fiscal policy as entirely reprehensible if not criminal in nature (he quotes economist George Akerlof to the effect that Bush administration budget policies are “a form of looting”).

Still, Krugman rightly points out that:
[T]hose who want to restore fiscal sanity probably need to frame their proposals in a way that neutralizes some of the administration’s demagoguery. In particular, they probably shouldn’t propose a roll-back of all of the Bush tax cuts. . . . By leaving the child tax credits and the cutout [that reduces the tax rate on some income to 10 percent from 15 percent] in place while proposing to repeal the rest, contenders will recapture most of the revenue lost because of the tax cuts, while making the job of the administration propagandists that much harder.

Public Opinion Watch completely agrees with this assessment. And—surprise, surprise—it now appears that quite a few Democratic primary voters do as well.

Bush and Senior Voters

Robin Toner, “Bush’s Popularity with Older Voters Is Seen as Slipping,” New York Times, Oct. 19, 2003
Washington Post/ABC News poll of 1,000 adults, released Oct. 14, 2003 (conducted Oct. 9–13, 2003)

A story in the Oct. 19 New York Times discussed the fall in Bush’s approval ratings among seniors. The most recent CBS News/New York Times poll has Bush’s approval rating at just 41 percent among those aged sixty-five and older, a fall of twenty-two points since May.

That’s very bad news for President Bush. Seniors were his worst age group in 2000 (he lost them 50 percent to 47 percent) and if he does any more poorly among them in 2004 that could doom his reelection chances.

Of course, Bush’s strategists hope that passage of a prescription drug benefit for Medicare will stop the bleeding among senior voters. But will it? In a just-released Washington Post poll, his approval rating on prescription drugs for seniors is an abysmal 35 percent. And the last time the prescription drugs bill was discussed intensively, in the second half of June, his overall approval rating among seniors dropped twelve points.

As savvy nonpartisan analyst Charlie Cook has pointed out, “If the prescription drug benefit is a factor in next year’s election, it will be as an albatross around the necks of Republicans and the Bush administration.” He argues that what seniors want is a drug benefit like a Fortune 500 company might provide—modest premium, minimal co-pay, no gaps, and unlimited coverage—and they want it provided through Medicare. What they’re likely going to get doesn’t look anything like that and when they figure this out—and Cook thinks they will—it will be the Republicans who’ll pay the price.

Public Opinion Watch agrees. Democrats should be able to do very well with senior voters in 2004 and, if they do, Bush will have to make up that deficit among other age groups, which could be very tough. Especially if Democrats push the other health care issue: the cost, availability, and coverage of health insurance. In the Post poll, Bush’s approval rating on this issue is just 31 percent with 60 percent disapproval.

Looks like Rove and Co. have some work to do.

Ruy Teixeira is a Joint Fellow at the Center for American Progress and The Century Foundation.

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Ruy Teixeira

Former Senior Fellow