Public Opinion Watch

Ruy Teixeira
Ruy Teixeira

Covering polls and related articles from the week of March 22 to 28, 2004.

In this edition of Public Opinion Watch:

• Clarke Revelations Take Their Toll
• Tax Cuts vs. a Balanced Budget vs. Increased Spending
• Newsweek Misses the Story on Young Voters

Clarke Revelations Take Their Toll

Princeton Survey Research poll of 1,002 adults for Newsweek, released March 27, 2004 (conducted March 25–26, 2004)

The new Newsweek poll suggests that Richard Clarke’s revelations about the Bush administration’s mishandling of the war on terror and its obsession with invading Iraq at the expense of prosecuting that war are eroding Bush’s support at its presumed bedrock: his handling of the war on terror and related issues.

The poll has Bush’s approval rating on handling terrorism and homeland security down to 57 percent, a sharp decline from 70 percent two months ago and from 65 percent a month ago. It is highly significant that this rating is now down in the 50s — Bush’s ratings on terrorism, homeland security and related issues have been uniformly in the 60s or above in this and other public polls for a very long time.

Bush’s approval rating on Iraq has also declined, down to 44 percent, with 50 percent disapproval. That compares to 53 percent approval, with 39 percent disapproval, at the end of last year.

The poll provides some very interesting data on how aspects of the war on terror are affecting voters’ likelihood of voting for Bush. At this point, a plurality of voters (42 percent) say that they will be less likely to vote for Bush because of his handling of postwar Iraq, rather than more likely (34 percent). A plurality of voters (40 percent) also say that they will be less likely to vote for Bush because of his decision to invade Iraq, rather than more likely (37 percent). Note that two months ago both of these indicators were net positive for Bush — those saying that they were more likely to vote for Bush outnumbered those who were saying that they were less likely.

Even his greatest strength — the response of his administration to the terrorist threat after Sept. 11, 2001 — is attenuating as an influence on voters. It is true that today those saying that they are more likely to vote for Bush because of his actions in this area outnumber those saying that they are less likely by a 22-point margin (50 percent to 28 percent). But two months ago that same question returned a 39-point Bush advantage (60 percent to 21 percent).

And here’s a very significant result: at this point, just 25 percent believe that the U.S. military action against Iraq has done more to decrease “the risk that large numbers of Americans will be killed or wounded in a future terrorist attack.” That compares to 41 percent who say that the action against Iraq has done more to increase that threat and another 27 percent who say the Iraq action has made no difference.

The public also now is close to split on whether the Bush administration has done all it could to fight terrorism (46 percent) or has not done all it could (43 percent). Note that political independents now believe by 47 percent to 40 percent that the Bush administration has not done all it could.

The same closely divided public can be seen in a question on whether the attention the Bush administration has given to Iraq has (42 percent) or has not (47 percent) distracted it from its efforts to fight terrorism. Again, independents are tilted the other way: by 47 percent to 44 percent, they think that Iraq has distracted them from their efforts to fight terrorism.

Bush also does not fare well in other areas covered by the poll. His overall approval rating is 49 percent and his ratings on specific domestic issues are uniformly worse. His approval rating on education is 47 percent (41 percent disapprove) and his rating on tax policies is only 43 percent (49 percent disapprove). Worse than that, his rating on the economy is only 40 percent (54 percent disapprove) and his rating on health care is just 30 percent (58 percent disapprove), down seven points in the past month.

But worst of all is his approval rating on handling “jobs and foreign competition”: a stunningly dismal 28 percent, with 60 percent disapproval.

The key task for Kerry will be to turn these poor domestic ratings, along with the apparent erosion in public support for Bush’s handling of the war on terror, into real momentum in his direction. Currently, Kerry leads Bush by one point (48 percent to 47 percent) in this poll, slightly up from a tie one week ago. And Bush’s re-elect number has declined slightly, from 46 percent to 45 percent. That’s a start, but Kerry clearly has a way to go before he recaptures a significant advantage in the race.

Tax Cuts vs. a Balanced Budget vs. Increased Spending

Ipsos poll of 1,001 adults for Associated Press, released March 24, 2004 (conducted March 19–21, 2004)

The latest Ipsos-AP poll has an interesting exercise that clearly illustrates the public’s relative priorities when it comes to tax cuts, a balanced budget, and increased spending. These relative priorities can be inferred from the findings of other public polls, but the Ipsos-AP exercise throws these priorities into exceptionally sharp relief.

Here’s what they did. Ipsos asked two questions about these priorities (via split sample). The first question was, “If you had to choose, would you prefer balancing the budget or cutting taxes?” The public’s response was overwhelmingly in favor of balancing the budget (61 percent to 36 percent).

The second question was, “If you had to choose, would you prefer balancing the budget or spending more on education, health care, and economic development?” The public’s response here was equally overwhelmingly in favor of increased spending. So balancing the budget trumps cutting taxes and increased spending trumps balancing the budget.

This is nice to know, but it does raise some troubling questions. If that’s the public’s view, how did the Bush 2001 and 2003 tax cuts pass? Why did the Bush administration believe it could get away with flouting the public’s priorities so ostentatiously? And why has there not been — at least as yet — a public backlash against the Bush tax cuts and their baleful social implications?

These are important questions. At least part of the answer lies in changes in the U.S. political process highlighted by political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson in a recent paper and in their forthcoming book, “Off Center: George W. Bush, Tax Cuts and the Erosion of Democracy.”

Hacker and Pierson argue that the political environment in the United States has changed in two basic ways (both of which, in my view, are particularly useful for understand the GOP’s current style of politics). The first is that politicians in this dealigned, money-driven era have increased incentives to reward their base, including partisans, activist groups, and the wealthy, since incumbents who avoid primary challenges (which tend to come from the base) and receive high levels of financial and interest group support are now almost assured of reelection. Pleasing the base is the key to keeping that re-election machine going, not following the preferences of general election voters.

The second is that politicians have an increased ability to avoid the electoral consequences of displeasing average voters. Most obviously, the number of competitive elections has declined and the ability of unions and other local, grassroots organizations to punish incumbents has decreased. Less obviously, but just as important, legislation has become ever more complex, and polling ever more sophisticated, making it easier to hide large drawbacks of legislative changes from average voters and highlight small benefits instead.

Together these changes in the political environment mean that the benefits to legislators of ignoring the public’s preferences have increased while the costs of doing so have gone down. Applying this to the case of the tax cuts, GOP legislators clearly saw how much the cuts would please their base and thought they could get away with passing them by playing up the minor savings for the typical voter and hiding the huge payoffs for the rich and overall budgetary damage from the cuts.

We’ll see if their bet pays off this November. In the meantime, if this discussion piques your interest, look for my forthcoming article in the American Prospect that goes into much more detail on these questions.

Newsweek Misses the Story on Young Voters

Jonathan Darman, “Ralph Rocks the Vote,” Newsweek online, March 23, 2004

Ipsos poll of 354 registered voters, 18-29, for Newsweek, released March 23, 2004 (conducted March 1–17, 2004)

Newsweek has a story on their Web site headlined “Ralph Rocks the Vote,” based on their most recent Ipsos “Genext” poll of young voters. The story dwells on how Nader draws 12 percent among young voters in their poll — double what Nader is drawing among all registered voters in other Ipsos polls — and what good news this is for Bush.

Buried in the story and in the full survey data is other information that suggests the real story is how anti-Bush young voters are and what poor shape the president is still in with these voters.

Consider the following. By almost 20 points, young voters think the country is off on the wrong track (58 percent), rather than going in the right direction. And three-quarters believe the unemployment situation will not improve in the next six months, either staying the same (47 percent) or actually increasing (28 percent).

Bush’s approval rating among young voters is now only 44 percent, with 54 percent disapproval, having dropped steadily among this group since early January of this year. His approval rating on the economy is now 46 percent, his approval rating on “domestic issues such health care, education, the environment and energy” is 43 percent and even his rating on “foreign policy issues and the war on terrorism” is down to 50 percent.

His hard re-elect number — those who would “definitely vote to re-elect” — is an anemic 32 percent, 14 points lower than the 46 percent who say that they will “definitely vote for someone else” (another 20 percent say that they would “consider voting for someone else”). And young voters also say they favor Democrats in this year’s Congressional election by a strong 12-point margin (51 percent to 39 percent).

Okay, but what about that Kerry-Bush-Nader horse race among young voters that’s allegedly such good news for Bush? Yes, it’s true that Nader draws 12 percent in this matchup. But it’s also true that Kerry leads Bush by nine points, 47 percent to 38 percent in the same matchup. In other words, even in a period where Bush has been making good headway in horse race matchups, and even with Nader in the mix and drawing a preposterously high 12 percent, Kerry still has a substantial lead over Bush among young voters.
In my view, that doesn’t qualify as good news for Bush.

And let me comment, if I may, about the way Nader’s so-called candidacy is being handled by the media and polling organizations. I’ll say it straight out: I don’t think this man’s name should be included in any horse race questions, particularly on national polls. It is highly probable Nader’s candidacy will amount to very little and, therefore, including him in Bush-Kerry matchups, where inattentive voters can declare their “support,” wildly inflates his importance and overstates Bush’s strength vis-à-vis Kerry.

Why do I say it’s highly probable Nader’s candidacy will be a big nothing? Because it’s likely he won’t even be on the ballot in a lot of states. Because he has no party line to run on this time and practically no prominent supporters. And because in a close election, voters are going to remember 2000 and how it did make a difference who got elected and choose not to throw away their vote. All this is likely to drive down his vote far below what he received last time — and last time he received only 2.7 percent.

I’ve made this argument before. As has Mark Schmitt and others. As has Rasmussen Reports who commendably have decided not to put Nader in their horse race questions. Would that more polling organizations would follow their lead.

Let me strongly recommend, then, that you ignore the Bush-Kerry-Nader trial heats and concentrate on the Bush-Kerry matchups. That’s where the real action is and where the real state of the race can be discerned.

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