Public Opinion Watch

Ruy Teixeira
Ruy Teixeira

Covering polls and related articles from the week of March 15 to 21, 2004.

In this edition of Public Opinion Watch:

• The Race Tightens, but Bush Weaknesses Remain
• The Big Shift: How Public Opinion Has Changed on Iraq
• No Wonder Bush Is Running as a War Leader
• The Failure of the GOP’s Hispanic Strategy

The Race Tightens, but Bush Weaknesses Remain

Princeton Survey Research poll of 1,006 adults for Newsweek, released March 20, 2004 (conducted March 19–20, 2004)

The latest Newsweek poll has Bush and Kerry dead-even, 48 percent to 48 percent. As reported in last week’s Public Opinion Watch, I had initially been skeptical of the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that first suggested this tightening, because other surveys with similar dates did not. But with this poll and the recent CBS News/New York Times poll, that does seem to be what’s happening.

The reason for this is not mysterious. The Bush campaign has unleashed a barrage of aggressive campaign ads and surrogate attacks that have succeeded in driving up Kerry’s negatives. For example, in the Newsweek poll, Kerry’s unfavorable rating has gone up from 27 percent to 36 percent. And both the Newsweek and CBS News polls have findings indicating more people think that Kerry takes his positions to please voters than that he says what he believes.

Should Democrats be pressing the panic button about these developments? I don’t think so, for several reasons.

First, the Bush push-back was inevitable and it was equally inevitable they’d find some statements by Kerry to push back on. If it hadn’t been the foreign leaders and the “first I voted for it, then against it” quotes, they would have found other quotes to use. No matter what Kerry said or did not say, it would not have forestalled these attacks.

Second, running this kind of early, highly negative campaign is a sign of weakness, not strength on the part of the incumbent. If you have a decently positive record to run, this is the time you spend reminding people how great your presidency has been. But this is difficult for the Bush campaign to do, as there’s little positive for them to run on. As even Bush booster David Brooks had to admit, Bush’s compassionate conservative image and program are in tatters. Voters continue to be very unhappy with the economy and the job Bush has done in this department (see “No Wonder Bush Is Running as a War President,” below). And the messy situation in Iraq and around the world vexes Bush’s ability to run on his foreign policy accomplishments (see “The Big Shift: How Public Opinion Has Changed on Iraq,” below).

Finally, and closely related to the previous point, recent events have tended to undercut, not improve, Bush’s ability to run on his record. The messy situation in Iraq and around the world simply has become messier. The Medicare prescription drugs bill is now not only unpopular, but a scandal that further damages Bush’s credibility. The economy continues to limp along. And so on.

That’s why, despite making headway in the Bush-Kerry horse race, Bush’s approval rating hasn’t budged (flatlined at 48 percent in the Newsweek poll), his re-elect number isn’t going anywhere (46 percent, about his average for the year in this poll), and voters are viewing the Republican Party more rather than less negatively (note that the Democrats now have a healthy seven point lead in the generic Congressional contest).

The Big Shift: How Public Opinion Has Changed on Iraq

Jennifer De Pinto and Jinghua Zou, “Shifting Opinions on Iraq,” CBSNews.com, March 17, 2004

It’s the one-year anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. That makes it a very good time to review how public opinion on Iraq has evolved since the invasion, going from strong support to the question-laden, how-do-we-get-out-of-this-mess view that characterizes the public today.

CBS News has usefully summarized some of the relevant data in a report, “Shifting Opinions on Iraq.” The report points out that Bush’s approval rating skied to 73 percent when U.S. troops entered Baghdad. In the latest CBS News poll, it’s down to 51 percent, a drop of 22 points.

Similarly, Bush’s approval rating on Iraq reached 79 percent after the fall of Baghdad. But in the latest CBS News poll, it’s down to 49 percent, a decline of 30 points.

What happened? After all, the Iraq army was beaten in short order and in December Saddam Hussein was captured. But, as far as the public was concerned, Saddam’s capture did little to remedy the three big problems with our occupation of Iraq: casualties, financial costs, and weapons of mass destruction (the abundance of the first two and the lack of the third). It is these problems that have undercut — and continue to undercut — public support for the Iraq war and occupation. Therefore, since Saddam’s capture clearly did not solve any of these problems — far from it — his capture, in the end, did little to change increasingly negative public views of the Iraq situation.

These negative views include the following. According to CBS News polls, a majority says that “the result of the war with Iraq” was not worth “the loss of American life and other costs” (51 percent to 42 percent). A majority (55 percent) also believes that, as a result of the war with Iraq, either the United States is less safe from terrorism (19 percent) or there has been no change (36 percent), rather than that we are safer from terrorism (42 percent). In addition, 61 percent say that the Bush administration was either hiding elements (45 percent) or mostly lying (16 percent) about what they knew about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. The public also believes that the Bush administration intentionally exaggerated intelligence findings to build support for the war (59 percent), rather than interpreted that intelligence accurately. And, it’s fascinating to note that, at this late date, 57 percent still think either that the Iraq threat could have been contained (45 percent) or that it wasn’t a threat at all (12 percent), compared to 42 percent who believe that Iraq’s threat merited immediate military action.

Data from other public polls show that the public believes that Bush does not have a clear plan for handling the Iraq situation, thinks the level of casualties the United States is sustaining is unacceptable, and strongly opposes the extra $87 billion that was allocated by Congress last November for the Iraq occupation. The public also overwhelmingly believes that capturing Osama bin Laden and breaking up al Qaeda should be the central front in the war on terrorism, not capturing Saddam and establishing democracy in Iraq.

So there’s been quite a shift in public opinion since the euphoric days last April when the U.S. troops stormed into Baghdad and the statue of Saddam came down. One can summarize these data by saying that the public now has two big questions about Iraq and the war on terror for which it’s seeking answers.

(1) How do we get out of Iraq? That’s not to say the public wants the United States precipitately to withdraw and let Iraq degenerate into total chaos. But the public does want to know how the casualty count can be drastically reduced, the financial and military burden can be shared, and the U.S. occupation can be brought to an eventual and successful close.

(2) How can we stop terrorism? The public was always unclear on the relationship between U.S. national security and the invasion of Iraq. The failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has underscored those doubts, as has the continuing failure to dismantle the al Qaeda terror network. The latter failure has, of course, been recently and bloodily illustrated by the March 11 train bombing in Spain.

Current Bush administration policy has no good answers to either one of these questions. That suggests that public support for the Iraq occupation and for the administration’s Iraq-centered approach to the war on terror will continue to ebb, until such answers are forthcoming.

No Wonder Bush Is Running as a War Leader

Lydia Saad, “Economic Optimism Slips Further,” Gallup Organization, March 15, 2004

Jacob M. Schlesinger, “Improving Economic Signals May No Longer Deliver Votes,” Wall Street Journal, March 15, 2004

CBS News/New York Times poll of 1,206 adults, released March 16, 2004 (conducted March 10–14, 2004)

Why is Bush running as a war leader? He just doesn’t have much else to run on. The latest Gallup poll finds economic optimism plummeting, with only 44 percent saying the economy is getting better, down from 53 percent in mid-February, which was down from 66 percent in early January.

This isn’t what’s supposed to be happening when the economy is growing at a decent rate. But it is. The typical voter just doesn’t like where this economy is going and how this recovery has proceeded. That’s why a recent front-page article in the Wall Street Journal was headlined “Improving Economic Signals May No Longer Deliver Votes.” The GDP growth rate doesn’t do much good with voters if good jobs seem to be disappearing, benefits are being cut, and wages are stagnating.

As the Wall Street Journal article puts it, “basic changes in the way the economy works have created a new political equation this year, loosening the old links between prosperity and a president’s popularity.”

And the article presents anecdotal evidence that this changed equation is reflected in the anti-Bush leanings of swing voters in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio. As 2000 Bush voter and self-described conservative Chuck Svokas of Weirton, West Virginia, puts it, Bush “doesn’t look like he has a grasp of what needs to be done for the American economy.” He says he’ll vote for Kerry this year.

That’s an anecdote, but the latest CBS News/New York Times poll has hard data on the deep economic hole Bush is in with voters. His approval rating on the economy is at 38 percent, with 54 percent disapproval. That’s his second straight sub-40 economic rating in this poll. Only 28 percent say the economy is getting better (note that this question includes a “staying the same” option and is therefore not directly comparable to the Gallup rating). Only 14 percent believe that Bush administration policies have increased the number of jobs in the United States. Only one-fifth say that the nation’s economy is better today than when Bush took office and the same low number say that their family is financially better off today than it was when he took office.

People also say that they are uneasy (57 percent) rather than confident (39 percent) in Bush’s ability to make the right decisions about the economy. In addition, just 39 percent say that if Bush is re-elected he is likely to increase the number of jobs and just 30 percent think the economy will get better if he gets re-elected.

Not exactly a vote of confidence. No wonder Bush’s current campaign slogan is “I’m a war leader.” Saying he’s a leader on the economy wouldn’t likely get him very far.

The Failure of the GOP’s Hispanic Strategy

Stan Greenberg and Matt Hogan, “Hispanics and the 2004 Election,” Democracy Corps, March 11, 2004.

Greenberg Quinlan Rosner poll of 1,564 Hispanic likely voters for Democracy Corps, including 363 non-Hispanic Cubans in Florida and 559 Hispanics in Nevada, New Mexico, and Arizona, released March 11, 2004 (conducted March 5–16, 2004)

A recent Wall Street Journal story was headlined “Bush’s Gambit for Votes of Hispanics Fizzles.” Of course, that’s not exactly a scoop, since I’ve been making the same point for a very long time, backed up by copious amounts of data. But I guess it’s nice to see the mainstream press catching on. The fact of the matter is that the strongest part of the GOP’s argument about Hispanics is that they need to make progress among this voter group. Evidence of actual progress among Hispanics has been conspicuously lacking.

The failure of the GOP’s Hispanic strategy is underscored by a recently released Democracy Corps poll of Hispanic likely voters that includes oversamples in three southwestern states (New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada) and among non-Cuban Hispanics in Florida.

In the poll, just 33 percent of Hispanics think that the country is going in the right direction and 52 percent say that it is off on the wrong track. And they give Bush an approval rating of only 46 percent.

The Democrats retain a huge lead of almost 40 points (65 percent to 26 percent) on party identification. This includes a larger lead in the southwest (45 points) and a substantially smaller, but still significant one among non-Cuban Hispanics in Florida (12 points).

In terms of the presidential contest, Kerry beats Bush among Hispanics by 23 points (57 percent to 34 percent), which includes a whopping margin of 33 points in the Southwest and seven points among non-Cuban Hispanics in Florida.

As the accompanying analysis memo points out, it is unlikely that Bush will get many more votes than he pulls in pre-election polls. Almost all Hispanic undecided voters are likely to break toward the Democrats based on past Hispanic voting patterns, undecided voters’ heavily Democratic party identification and the general tendency of undecided voters to break toward the challenger.

In short, the GOP Hispanic strategy is in a shambles. Their seemingly clever strategy of targeting Hispanic voters has run into a fairly major problem: the current Republican party has little to offer an overwhelmingly working-class, immigrant-based, minority population such as Hispanics. “We’re socially conservative, too” or “some of us speak Spanish” apparently doesn’t cut it with a group whose real-life needs call for more government action, not less.

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