Public Opinion Watch

Ruy Teixeira
Ruy Teixeira

(covering polls and related articles from the week of April 19–25)

In this edition of Public Opinion Watch:

• Is Bush’s “Oratory” Keeping the American Public from Turning Against the War?
• So What’s Really Happening in the Battleground States?
• A Bush Bump?

Is Bush’s “Oratory” Keeping the American Public from Turning Against the War?

Knowledge Networks poll of 1,311 adults for Program on International Policy Attitudes, released April 22 (conducted March 16–22)
Dana Milbank, “Bush’s Oratory Helps Maintain Support for the War,” Washington Post, April 25

Is Bush’s “oratory” keeping the American public from turning against the war? That was the contention of Sunday’s front page story by Dana Milbank in the Washington Post. There’s only one slight problem with this: the American public, by any reasonable standard, is turning against the war. Now you reasonably could say that support for the war effort has not completely collapsed, despite the recent string of bad news. Or that Bush’s rhetoric is helping slow the rate of decline. Or that his oratory helped contribute to the recent rally effect that may have elevated Bush in the polls by a few points. But you can’t say that the public isn’t turning against the war, because they are.

Here are some recent data from the Post’s own poll, which Milbank rather selectively cites in his piece. That poll has close to an even split (51 percent saying “yes” versus 47 percent saying “no”) on whether the war with Iraq was worth fighting. The poll also shows a close split on a related question: whether the United States did the right thing in going to war with Iraq or whether it was a mistake (52 percent versus 46 percent). Last April, this same question was 81 percent versus 16 percent.

Let’s dwell on that last datum a bit. In the past year, the public has gone from a 65-point margin in favor of the Iraq war being the right thing to do, not a mistake, to a mere six-point margin. And, one poll question (from Ipsos-AP) already is returning a plurality in favor of the war being a mistake (and that was down from a lopsidedly positive reply—67 percent right decision/29 percent mistake—four months earlier).

If that’s not turning against the war, I don’t know what is. With the war in Vietnam, it took about two years to get to the point where we are already in terms of thinking the war was a mistake. So, not only is the public turning against the war, it’s turning against it fast, by historical standards.

And here are some more data from the Post‘s own poll, none of which make it into Milbank’s article.

People feel, by 51 percent to 34 percent, that the Middle East is less stable, rather than more stable, as a result of the war. They think, by 57 percent to 37 percent, that the United States will not be able to establish a stable democracy in Iraq. They also believe, by 35 percent to 29 percent, that the war in Iraq has left the United States in a weaker, not stronger, position in the world (in April 2003, the public thought the war would make us stronger, by 52 percent to 12 percent). And about two-thirds (65 percent) now say that, given the goals versus costs of the war, the number of casualties we are sustaining is unacceptable.

Oh, but this isn’t “turning against the war,” I suppose. Perhaps it merely qualifies as “raising a quizzical eyebrow.”

Of course, it’s not just the Post‘s own poll:

In the most recent CBS News poll, only 36 percent believe 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.

And, in the latest Ipsos poll, the public believes by about two to one that the military action in Iraq has increased the threat of terrorism in the world, rather than decreased it (“increased” and “decreased” were tied only four months ago). That poll also found that, by seventeen points, the public believes that the Iraq war will increase, not decrease, the amount of terrorism at home in the United States. (Note that the latest Annenberg election survey had that sentiment even stronger—two to one in favor of the Iraq war increasing the amount of terrorism in the United States).

Ah, but the public isn’t turning against the war. Right.

The article’s evidence, such as it is, for this absurd contention seems to revolve around the alleged fact that Bush’s oratory has convinced the American public of three points:

1. That the United States will prevail in Iraq. But according to the Post‘s own poll, the public thinks the United States has gotten “bogged down” in Iraq (59 percent), rather than that the United States is making good progress (41 percent). And note the view cited above on how the United States will not be able to establish a stable democracy in Iraq.

2. That the fighting in Iraq is related to the war against al Qaeda. Sure people think that the war in Iraq is related to the war against al Qaeda—but negatively so! As the data above clearly show, the public believes that the war in Iraq is increasing the threat of terrorism and the danger that a group like al Qaeda will hit the U.S. homeland again. Note also that few Americans think that the war in Iraq is major part of the war against terrorism and that most Americans think fighting al Qaeda, not the war in Iraq, should the focus of our efforts to fight terrorism.

3. That most Iraqis and many foreign countries support U.S. actions in Iraq. But the latest Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) poll (which Milbank cites at another point in the article for different purposes) finds the public saying, by 51 percent to 47 percent, that the majority of the Iraqis want us to leave, not stay. That’s a big change from November when the same question returned a 39 percent leave/58 percent stay response.

Beyond these “facts,” the article cites PIPA findings that indicate many members of the public continue to harbor apparent misconceptions about the ties between al Qaeda and Saddam and about the existence of WMD and WMD programs in Iraq prior to the war. True enough. But these misconceptions, while still at disturbing levels, are nevertheless substantially lower in most cases than they were prior to the war. And the continued harboring of misconceptions is not evidence that the public is not turning against the war; it merely means they have misconceptions. When the public was turning against the Vietnam war in 1967–68, many of those who were starting to think the war was a mistake still harbored lots of mistaken, if not bizarre, ideas about the origins of the Vietnam conflict. But their misconceptions, in the end, did not prevent them from opposing the Vietnam War and punishing those politicians whom they felt had led them astray. I suspect the same phenomenon will play itself out with the Iraq War.

As added evidence for this view, the PIPA poll already shows that the way Bush has dealt with the Iraq situation, on net, cuts against him electorally. According to the poll, 41 percent say Bush’s actions in Iraq will decrease the likelihood that they will vote for him, compared to 34 percent who say his Iraq actions will increase their likelihood of supporting him. That compares to 30 percent/35 percent last September, when it appeared that his Iraq policy was a net benefit to him.

But times have changed. Time for the Post to catch up.

So What’s Really Happening in the Battleground States?

David W. Moore, “Little Change in Presidential Contest,” Gallup Organization, April 20

The recent Gallup and ABC News/Washington Post polls (see below) have gotten a lot of Democrats worried about how well Bush apparently is doing. I argued last week that these worries are considerably exaggerated and that developments in the past six weeks fundamentally weaken Bush, whether or not some polls show him ahead in the horse race.

Still, I know many believe Bush’s ads in the battleground states have worked and that, to be doing so well in general, he must be making serious progress in those contested states.

To which I say: wrong! The Annenberg election survey results I reviewed last week showed that Kerry’s favorabilty rating remained unchanged in the battleground states and that persuadable voters were uninclined to believe Republican charges about Kerry flip-flopping, believing Bush, more than Kerry, exhibited that behavior.

And now check out these just-released findings from the same ABC News poll that contributed to the Democrats’ anguish about Bush being ahead. According to data in released in The Hotline, Kerry is ahead of Bush by four points in the battleground states (50 percent to 46 percent). He’s even ahead of Bush by two points in these states with Nader thrown into the mix and drawing a ridiculous 7 percent.

Note also that Bush’s approval rating in the battleground states is 49 percent, two points under his national rating and that his approval rating on the economy in these states is just 41 percent, three points under his national rating.

Interestingly, if you look closely at recent Gallup poll results, there also are signs of poor recent Bush performance in battleground states (or, as they call them, “purple states”). Their latest poll had Bush ahead overall among likely voters by five points. But he is only tied with Kerry in the purple states. Moreover, that represents a six-point swing away from Bush in the purple states compared to Gallup’s March 26–28 survey.

One must be cautious about these data, of course, because of sample size and other problems (though note that the ABC News battleground states sample is probably over three hundred, which is a pretty decent size). But they do lead me to a hypothesis about Bush’s recent improved performance in trial heat questions. Instead of getting more votes where he needs them—in the battleground states—his hardline posturing is driving up mostly his support in the hardcore red states, where he doesn’t need more votes. If that’s true, Democrats definitely should not be intimidated by recent poll results. Bush is preaching to the converted—which can make him look better in a national poll—but he’s not winning many new converts where it counts.

A Bush Bump?

TNS Intersearch poll of 1,201 adults for ABC News/Washington Post, released April 19 (conducted April 15–18)
Gallup poll of 1,003 adults for CNN/USA Today, released April 19 (conducted April 16–18)

Two polls released on April 19 gave small leads to Bush over Kerry in presidential trial heat questions. The Gallup poll, using registered voters (RVs) and the Kerry-Bush not Kerry-Bush-Nader trial heat, shows Bush with a four-point lead (50 percent to 46 percent), while the ABC News poll gives Bush a one-point lead (49 percent 48 percent). (Note that this latter result is not from a standard Kerry-Bush trial heat question, which ABC News chose not to ask, but rather from combining a Kerry-Bush-Nader trial heat question with a followup to Nader supporters/undecideds on who they would support if Nader doesn’t run or isn’t on the ballot. Guess they just wanted to be different.)

So: two polls, two RV leads, one taken April 16–18 (Gallup), the other taken April 15–18 (ABC News).

Here are other RV Kerry-Bush results for earlier in April:

Newsweek, April 8–9 Kerry, 50-43

ARG, April 6–9 Kerry, 50-44

Gallup, April 5–8 Kerry, 48-45

Fox, April 6–7 Kerry, 44-43

CBS News, March 30–April 1 Kerry, 48-43

Note that each of these polls has Kerry ahead. And note that there were no relevant polls conducted in the period from April 10 to April 15, the start date of the new ABC News poll. But that poll and the new Gallup poll do indicate that Bush has edged ahead, so a plausible theory is that Bush received some sort of a bump up in that period.

What might that have been? Given the timing, Bush’s advertisements do not seem like the logical candidate for such a bump. A more plausible possibility is his televised speech/press conference on April 13, where he presented no clear plans on how to deal with the problems in Iraq, but did urge Americans to stay the course, be tough and so on. I thought at the time it was possible he would get some sort of small, short-lived rally effect from these posturings and that may have come to pass. Such an effect was likely aided and abetted by the very low profile of the Kerry campaign which provided Bush with a relatively clear field to push the electorate in his direction.

I also thought that “the really significant political development in the recent period is the undercutting of support for Bush’s war in Iraq and for his handling of the war on terror,” not the ups and downs of the horse race, and I continue to think that.

Indeed, there are plenty of findings in these new polls that indicate Bush’s troubles in these areas are here to stay. The Gallup poll shows that the public about split (52 percent to 46 percent) about whether it was or was not worth going to war in Iraq. And the ABC News poll has a similar split (51 percent to 47 percent) on whether the war with Iraq was worth fighting. That poll also shows a close split on a related question: whether the United States did the right thing in going to war with Iraq or whether it was a mistake (52 percent to 46 percent). Last April, this same question was 81 percent to 16 percent.

People also feel, by 51 percent to 34 percent, that the Middle East is less stable, rather than more stable, as a result of the war. They think, by 57 percent to 37 percent, that the United States will not be able to establish a stable democracy in Iraq. They also believe, by 35 percent to 29 percent, that the war in Iraq has left the United States in a weaker not stronger, position in the world (last April, the public thought the war will make us stronger, by 52 percent to 12 percent). And about two-thirds (65 percent) now say that, given the goals versus costs of the war, the number of casualties we are sustaining is unacceptable.

The ABC News poll also indicates that Bush’s approval ratings in a wide range of areas have improved only marginally in some areas, while continuing to slip in others. His ratings continue to be net negative on the economy, Iraq, Social Security, health insurance, taxes, creating jobs, the budget deficit, prescription drugs, and even same-sex marriage. Nor are people more convinced that the country is moving in the right direction; these numbers continue to be dismal with wrong track (57 percent) far outnumbering right direction (42 percent).

The really positive changes for Bush are in a series of questions asking people who they trust more, Bush or Kerry, on a range of issues. In every area, Kerry’s advantages are smaller or disadvantages greater than they were in ABC News’ March 7 poll. For example, Kerry was preferred on the economy by twelve points in March, now he and Bush are tied. Or Kerry was ahead by twenty points on health insurance in March, now he is ahead by just six points. And so on. These are big changes on these preferences, not just from early March but from the end of March Battleground poll I discussed last week and even from the (generally pro-Bush) Fox poll 10 days ago.

That suggests, again, not the effect of Bush campaign advertisements, but rather a rally effect compression of Kerry’s advantages over Bush (rally effects usually benefit presidents across unrelated areas). Therefore, Bush’s improved showing in these areas is unlikely to stick around, given an adequate push-back by Kerry’s campaign.

This suggests that the Kerry campaign would be well-advised to start that push-back, including especially defining Kerry positively for voters. Bush, as the data clearly show, has been massively undermined in his core area of strength, and, despite his much-vaunted advertisements and (probably more important) having the field to himself for six weeks, has Kerry breathing down his neck.

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