Public Opinion Watch

Ruy Teixeira
Ruy Teixeira

(covering polls and related articles from the weeks of March 29–April 12)

In this edition of Public Opinion Watch:

• Condoleezza Rice’s Testimony: Mission Not Accomplished
• Los Angeles Times Poll Confirms Bush Difficulties
• Public Still Negative on Bush’s Economic Performance
• Seniors Just Don’t Like That New Medicare Prescription Drugs Law!

Condoleezza Rice’s Testimony: Mission Not Accomplished

CBS News poll of 1,024 adults, released April 2 (conducted March 30–April 1)
Pew Research Center poll of 790 adults, released April 5 (conducted April 1–4)
Annenberg Public Policy Center poll of 1,670 adults, released April 5 (conducted March 16–31)
CBS News poll of 471 adults, reinterviewed from CBS News March 30–April 1 poll, released April 9 (conducted April 8)

Given the strongly negative public opinion trends that have been buffeting the Bush administration for several weeks, it was highly unlikely that Rice’s testimony to the 9/11 Commission last Thursday would prove a silver bullet for Bush’s political fortunes.

Consider the following. After a month where Bush spent heavily on campaign ads attacking John Kerry and where the economy finally turned in a good performance on creating jobs, the president’s political position has gotten substantially worse, not better.

The latest Pew Research Center poll, conducted April 1–4 and overlapping with the release of March’s strong jobs report, has his overall job approval rating at 43 percent—the worst rating in any public poll of his presidency—with 47 percent disapproval. The same poll has his approval rating on the economy at just 39 percent, with 53 percent disapproval.

In the latest CBS News poll, his economic approval rating is even worse: 37 percent approval/56 percent disapproval (30 percent/59 percent disapproval, almost two to one, among independents). And that’s at the end of a strong economic month for the administration.

But it is on Iraq, foreign policy and, above all, the war on terror that Bush’s position has deteriorated most significantly. That, I believe, was the most important political development of month of March, not the much-ballyhooed Bush campaign ads and the (completely predictable) diminution in Kerry’s lead over Bush in polling trial heats.

In the Pew poll, Bush’s approval rating on Iraq is down to 40 percent, with 53 percent disapproval. That’s a 35-point swing from the Iraq rating Bush received in January in the same poll (59 percent/37 percent).

On foreign policy, the CBS News poll has Bush at 42 percent approval/49 percent disapproval, and a dismal 36 percent/52 percent among independents.

But it’s on his handling of the war on terror that Bush has taken the most significant blows to his political standing. That area had been Bush’s political fortress ever since Sept. 11, but no longer—that fortress is crumbling. In the CBS News poll, he’s down to 58 percent approval in this area. And in two recent polls—the Pew poll and the Annenberg Election Survey—his approval rating on handling the war against terrorism is down to a distinctly underwhelming 53 percent.

Moreover, by almost three to one (67 percent to 23 percent) in the CBS News poll, the public now says that the Bush administration could have done more to prevent the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks (more than three to one—68 percent to 20 percent—among independents).

As revelations about the Bush administration’s inept handling of the terrorist threat, both before and after September 11, continue to emerge, the public’s view of Bush’s performance in this area seems likely to deteriorate even further.

And we can certainly expect that the public will become more troubled by his handling of Iraq, given the increasing violence and instability there. In the CBS News poll, those saying that the result of the Iraq war was not worth the loss of American life and other costs now outnumber those saying it was by 54 percent to 37 percent (59 percent to 32 percent among independents, almost two to one). Only 36 percent believe that the war has made the United States safer from terrorism; only 34 percent believe that the Iraq war is a major part of the war against terrorism; and just 15 percent believe that the Bush administration has explained clearly how long U.S. troops will be in Iraq.

In addition, the Pew poll shows that, by 57 percent to 32 percent, people don’t think that Bush has a clear plan to bring the Iraq situation to a successful conclusion. And the public is now close to evenly split on whether to keep troops in Iraq until a stable government is established (50 percent) or simply bring troops home as soon as possible (44 percent). That’s down from strong support (63 percent to 32 percent) for keeping troops there in January.

Given these data, it should come as no great surprise that Rice’s testimony has failed to turn the tide.

CBS News reinterviewed some of the respondents from their March 30–April 1 poll (discussed above) on the night of April 8, the day that Rice testified. Here are some of the changes they found:

  • Bush’s handling of the situation with Iraq: essentially unchanged (45 percent approval/50 percent disapproval to 46 percent/50 percent).
  • Bush’s handling of the campaign against terrorism: down slightly, from 58 percent/36 percent to 56 percent/38 percent.
  • Whether the result of the war with Iraq was worth the associated costs: down from 39 percent yes/53 percent no to 34 percent yes/57 percent no (27 percent/65 percent among independents).
  • Whether the United States did the right thing in taking military action against Iraq or should have stayed out: down from 55 percent right thing/39 percent stayed out to 50 percent/46 percent.
  • Whether the policies of the Bush adminstration have made the United States safer from terrorism: very slightly up, from 50 percent yes to 51 percent yes.
  • Whether the Bush administration was paying enough attention to terrorism prior to September 11: up from 18 percent paying enough attention/71 percent not enough attention, but only to 25 percent/68 percent.

Mission not accomplished.

Los Angeles Times Poll Confirms Bush Difficulties

Los Angeles Times poll of 1,616 adults, released March 31 (conducted March 27–30)

The recently released Los Angeles Times (LAT) poll confirms the difficulties Bush is now facing in his reelection effort, including eroding support for his handling of the war on terror. The poll also presents a less-cheerful view of how Bush is faring against Kerry in election trial heats, when compared to the much-publicized Gallup poll from late March.

Let’s start with the horse race data. The LAT poll, which has a larger sample size (N=1,616) than that Gallup poll and was conducted more recently (March 27–30), finds Kerry ahead 49 percent to 46 percent among registered voters. The Gallup poll, in contrast, had exactly the reverse result—Bush ahead of Kerry by 49 percent to 46 percent.

According to the LAT data, Kerry’s lead is larger among independents (49 percent to 44 percent) than among all registered voters and much larger among moderates (58 percent to 33 percent). In addition, Kerry pulls two-thirds of the youth (ages 18 to 29) vote and leads among seniors by nine points (51 percent to 42 percent).

It’s also interesting to note that Kerry is pulling 43 percent among white men, only behind Bush by about 10 points. In 2000, Gore only drew 36 percent among this group and lost to Bush by 10 points.

The LAT poll includes a Bush-Kerry-Nader trial heat, as well as the Bush-Kerry matchup just discussed. The intriguing result here is that inclusion of Nader does not change the balance between Kerry and Bush; the margin remains exactly the same. Note that this result—Nader not changing the Bush-Kerry margin—also was observed in the Gallup poll mentioned above.

The poll finds the public saying by a wide margin that the country is off on the wrong track (55 percent), rather than going in the right direction (36 percent). And among independents, it’s a stunningly negative verdict: 61 percent wrong track/29 percent right direction.

In terms of approval ratings, Bush’s overall rating is 51 percent and his rating on Iraq is 49 percent, both two points lower than the ratings reported by the late March Gallup poll. And his rating on “handling the war on terrorism,” consistent with other recent polls, is now down to 56 percent, an underwhelming figure for what has been, by far, his strongest area (and it’s only 52 percent among moderates).

Also consistent with other recent polls, the public agrees, by 52 percent to 40 percent, that Bush failed to take the threat of terrorism seriously enough before the Sept. 11 attacks (57 percent to 38 percent among independents and 54 percent to 38 percent among moderates). The public agrees even more strongly that Bush was more focused on attacking Iraq than dealing with terrorism as his top priority (64 percent to 32 percent—that’s two to one!—among independents and 61 percent to 33 percent among moderates).

The LAT poll gives Kerry a better favorability rating than the recent Gallup poll. His favorable rating is 48 percent, with just 29 percent unfavorable, for a +19 differential. That differential rises to +24 among independents and +36 among moderates (only 19 percent of this group views Kerry unfavorably).

Bush, in contrast, is viewed favorably by 50 percent, just barely more than the 47 percent who view him unfavorably, for a narrow +3 differential. And among independents (-8 differential) and moderates (-10 differential), he is viewed more unfavorably than favorably.

In the poll, more people believe the statement “he cares about people like me” applies to Kerry than to Bush (43 percent to 33 percent). And independents (51 percent to 22 percent) and moderates (53 percent to 25 percent) prefer Kerry particularly strongly.

The poll finds the public narrowly preferring Bush to Kerry on “he will be a strong leader for the country” (46 percent to 38 percent) and on “he has the honesty and integrity to be president (41 percent to 36 percent), but, in each case, independents and moderates believe these statements apply more to Kerry than to Bush.

And here’s an interesting one. What’s the quintessential GOP attack on Kerry these days? “He flip-flops on the issues,” of course. Well, in this poll, nearly as many say this statement applies to Bush (35 percent) as say it applies to Kerry (38 percent). And moderates actually say, by 38 percent to 28 percent, that the statement applies more to Bush than Kerry!

Perhaps that line of criticism will not turn out to be quite the slam-dunk the GOP has assumed.

Public Still Negative on Bush’s Economic Performance

Los Angeles Times poll of 1,616 adults, released March 31 (conducted March 27–30)

The Bush administration got a bit of welcome news recently, with the release of the new jobs report. In March, the economy added 308,000 jobs, though, in the process, the unemployment rate ticked up to 5.7 percent.

That’s the first month of really strong job growth we’ve seen in this recovery. Here’s some analysis from the Economic Policy Institute’s excellent Job Watch publication that’ll help put that one month of good job growth in perspective:

The Bush administration called the tax cut package, which was passed in May 2003 and took effect in July 2003, its “Jobs and Growth Plan.” The president’s economics staff, the Council of Economic Advisers, projected that the plan would result in the creation of 5.5 million jobs by the end of 2004—306,000 new jobs each month, starting in July 2003. After eight months of falling considerably short of that projection, job gains for the month of March finally hit that level. For the nine months as a whole, however, the administration projected that a total of 2,754,000 jobs would be created after the tax cuts took effect. In fact, only 689,000 jobs were created over that period for a cumulative shortfall of 2,065,000 jobs.

Since the recession began thirty-six months ago in March 2001, 2.0 million jobs have disappeared, a 1.5 percent contraction. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (which began collecting monthly jobs data in 1939, at the end of the Great Depression) noted that in every previous episode of recession and job decline since 1939, the number of jobs had recovered fully to above the pre-recession peak within 31 months of the start of the recession. Today’s labor market would have 3.4 million more jobs if jobs had grown by the 1.1 percent rate that occurred in the early 1990s recession and so-called “jobless recovery,” the worst record prior to this current period.

So perhaps it’s not yet time for Bush to do his traditional “Mission Accomplished” act. Especially since the public, despite having lived through a statistically good month for job growth, is still in an ornery mood about Bush’s management of the economy.

To begin with, Gallup’s mid-March poll found economic pessimism higher, not lower, relative to their February poll. And their late March poll found Bush’s approval rating on the economy lower, not higher, than it was in February.

The new Los Angeles Times poll confirms Bush’s low standing in the public’s eyes on economic performance. His approval rating on the economy in this poll—taken at the very end of March—is only 43 percent, with 53 percent disapproval. And, among independents, his rating is an abysmal 35 percent, with 63 percent disapproval, roughly matching his poor performance among moderates (35 percent/60 percent).

In terms of how well Bush’s policies have worked, only 25 percent believe that his policies have made the country more prosperous, compared to 70 percent who believe either that they’ve made the country less prosperous (43 percent) or that they’ve made no difference (27 percent).

And who would do best at “protecting the financial security of the average American”? Kerry would, by 47 percent to 34 percent, rising to a 23-point margin (49 percent to 26 percent) among independents.

The public, on the other hand, has full confidence in Bush’s commitment to protecting the interests of large business corporations. By exactly three to one (63 percent to 21 percent), they say that Bush is more interested in protecting the interests of these corporation than protecting those of ordinary working people (69 percent to 14 percent among independents).

The public is also worried about the wave of corporate scandals that have taken place on Bush’s watch. By 10 points (50 percent to 40 percent), they say that wrongdoing among corporate executives is a widespread problem in which many are taking advantage of a failing system, rather than a problem of a few corrupt individuals in a basically honest system (59 percent to 34 percent among independents).

It seems safe to say that Bush’s problems on the economy are deep enough and broad enough that they are unlikely to be solved by one month—or even several—of statistically improved labor market performance.

Seniors Just Don’t Like That New Medicare Prescription Drugs Law!

David W. Moore, “Support Drops for New Medicare Law,” Gallup Organization, April 2

Oh those pesky seniors! They never do what they’re supposed to do, at least if you’re a GOP political strategist. Check out this new analysis from Gallup of attitudes toward the Medicare prescription drugs law.

Here’s the most amazing thing: seniors now say they oppose, not favor, the part of the law that should be most popular among them: the new prescription drug benefit. In early December, they narrowly favored it, 46 percent to 39 percent. But now, four months later, they say they oppose it, 48 percent to 36 percent.

The Gallup analysis also finds that only 26 percent of seniors believe the new law actually will help the situation seniors are in concerning their prescription drugs, rather than hurt it or have no effect. And only 14 percent of seniors think the bill will help make the Medicare system more financially secure.

Not exactly what the Bush administration had in mind when they pushed so hard to get this bill through.

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