Public Opinion Watch

Ruy Teixeira
Ruy Teixeira

(covering polls and related articles from the week of May 10–16)

In this edition of Public Opinion Watch:

• New Polls Bring New Lows for Bush
• Kerry Leads in Latest Gallup, Pew Polls
• All Trial Heats Are Not Created Equal

New Polls Bring New Lows for Bush

CBS News poll of 448 adults, released May 12 (conducted May 11)
Harris Interactive poll of 1,001 adults for Time/CNN, released May 14 (conducted May 12–13)
Princeton Survey Research Associates poll of 1,010 adults for Newsweek, released May 15 (conducted May 13–14)
Zogby poll of 985 likely voters, released May 16 (conducted May 10–13)

Several new polls have Bush hitting new lows in important ways.

First, the Newsweek poll. In this poll, Bush’s overall approval rating is down to 42 percent, with 52 percent disapproval, his lowest rating yet in any public poll. (Note: Zogby also has his rating at 42 percent, but Zogby job ratings are based on a different question and therefore are not directly comparable with other public polls.) And Bush’s approval rating on Iraq is down to 35 percent, with 57 percent disapproval, also a new low. Wow. It was just a few days ago (see below) that his Iraq rating went below 40 percent for the first time.

Bad as the Newsweek findings are for Bush, the findings from the CNN poll are probably worse. First, the poll finds Kerry ahead of Bush in practically every issue area, including protecting the environment (+22); health care (+19); reducing the deficit (+18); handling the economy (+13); and even taxes (+6). But here’s the really significant part: besides these domestic issues, Kerry is also ahead of Bush on handling foreign policy (+2) and handling the situation in Iraq (+3). A couple of weeks ago, Bush had a healthy lead on handling Iraq; last week Bush had a small lead; this week, he’s behind. Clearly, the tide is turning.

And even on his “signature issue,” as it were, handling the war on terrorism, he now only has a seven-point lead over Kerry (49 percent to 42 percent). I am quite sure that this is the smallest lead we have seen yet for Bush on this issue. If he loses a few more points and Kerry gains a few more, he and Kerry will be essentially tied on handling terrorism! I suspect that would get the Bush-Cheney campaign kind of worried.

And here’s more on Bush’s declining terrorism advantage. According to the CNN poll, more people now think Bush is doing a poor job (47 percent) than think he is doing a good job (46 percent) on handling terrorism. Ouch. That’s got to hurt when you used to think that one issue guaranteed you re-election. (Note that this question isn’t phrased as a typical job rating [“Do you approve or disapprove of the job President Bush is doing handling….”], so we really can’t say his job rating on handling terrorism is now below 50 percent. But, on the evidence of this question, I would not be surprised to see such a rating fairly soon.)

Turning to the horse race data, only one of the polls mentioned above, provides registered voter (RV) data—the Newsweek poll—and that poll has Kerry ahead of Bush, albeit by only a single point (46 percent by 45 percent; though note that Kerry has a nice seven-point lead among independents). The CNN and Zogby polls both use the less desirable (in my view) likely voter (LV) approach and both have Kerry ahead by more—CNN by five points (51 percent to 46 percent) and Zogby also by five points (47 percent to 42 percent).

And here’s something to chew on: in all three of these polls, the addition of Nader to the trial heat question does not reduce Kerry’s margin, since Nader winds up drawing about equally from Kerry’s and Bush’s support. Interesting.

The first time Bush’s approval rating on Iraq was measured below 40 percent was in the May 11 CBS News poll. In that poll, his rating on Iraq is 39 percent approval/58 percent disapproval (only 37 percent among independents).

Also in the poll, his overall approval rating is down to 44 percent with 49 percent disapproval (42 percent/46 percent among independents) and his approval rating on the economy is now just 34 percent/60 percent (30 percent/62 percent—more than two to one disapproval—among independents). And even his rating on handling the campaign against terrorism is a less than stellar 51 percent.

So, let’s see, his overall rating is 44 percent and his average rating in what are probably the top three issue areas—the economy, Iraq, and terrorism—is now a dismal 41 percent. That’s a startling contrast to how Bush was faring five months ago when Saddam was found in his spider hole and political pundits were rushing to declare him all but invulnerable politically.

And, wait, there’s more. For the first time, less than 30 percent (29 percent) say that the result of the Iraq war was worth the loss of American life and other costs, compared to 64 percent who say that it wasn’t worth the costs. And among independents, it’s now an amazing three to one against the war being worth it (69 percent to 23 percent).

The poll has a similarly lop-sided result on whether the United States is in control of the Iraq situation. By 57 percent to 31 percent, the public says that the United States is not in control of events in Iraq, a margin that rises to 59 percent to 25 percent among independents—almost two to one. The increasing sense of lack of control is probably an important reason for the increasing willingness to turn over control to the Iraqis as soon as possible, even if Iraq is not completely stable, rather than keep troops in Iraq as long as necessary (now 55 percent to 38 percent for turning over control, up from dead-even at 46 percent to 46 percent in late April).

Could Bush’s ratings on Iraq get any worse? Based on the way things are going, I would have to say that’s a very strong possibility.

Kerry Leads in Latest Gallup, Pew Polls

Gallup poll of 1,003 adults for CNN/USA Today, released May 10 (conducted May 7–9)
Pew Research Center poll of 1,800 adults, released May 12 (conducted May 3–9)

The latest Gallup poll has Kerry leading Bush by six points among RVs (50 percent to 44 percent), up from dead-even five days earlier (47 percent to 47 percent). (Oddly, Gallup’s LV matchup has Kerry slipping to 47 percent/48 percent from a 49 percent/48 percent lead five days ago. But, as I have repeatedly argued (see below), it is the RV matchups, not the LV matchups, that best reflect the state of the race this early in the campaign. This absurd result from Gallup is one more reason to avoid LV data whenever possible.)

While this horse race result is interesting, other findings from the poll are probably more important. Like this one: Bush’s approval rating is down to 46 percent with a 51 percent disapproval. That’s a net negative rating of -5. At the beginning of the year, Bush’s rating in the Gallup poll was 59 percent with a 38 percent disapproval, for a net positive rating of +21. Quite a shift.

Bush’s approval rating on the economy is unchanged at an abysmal 41 percent with 56 percent disapproval, while his rating on terrorism actually went up slightly to 54 percent/43 percent from 52 percent/45 percent. But his rating on handling the situation in Iraq has continued its downward trajectory, sinking to 41 percent/58 percent from 42 percent/55 percent.

The poll also shows Kerry doing much better in comparisons with Bush on handling three key issues: the economy, the situation in Iraq, and terrorism. On terrorism, while Kerry remains solidly behind Bush by 17 points (55 percent to 38 percent), that’s a significant contraction from Bush’s 27-point lead (60 percent to 33 percent) two months ago. On the economy, Kerry has widened his 50 percent/42 percent lead two months ago to a 54 percent/40 percent edge today. And on Iraq—very significant, in my view—Kerry has mostly eliminated Bush’s fifteen-point lead from March to a mere three points today (48 percent to 45 percent). (Note: the more recent Newsweek poll—see above—has Kerry now leading on Iraq and reducing Bush’s margin on terrorism to a mere seven points.)

As for whether it was worth going to war in Iraq or not, the public now says it wasn’t worth it by 54 percent to 44 percent. Note that this is the first time that Gallup has received a negative response to this question. Indeed, just five days previously, it was still 50 percent to 47 percent in favor of the war being worth it.

In addition, there is now close to an even split on whether the United States should withdraw at least some troops from Iraq. A total of 47 percent says that we should either withdraw all troops (29 percent) or some troops (18 percent), compared to 49 percent who want to either send more troops (25 percent) or keep troop levels as they are (24 percent). And close to half (45 percent) now say they’d be upset if Bush sent more troops to Iraq, up from 38 percent two months ago.

The new Pew poll sings the same song as the Gallup poll just discussed. Kerry leads Bush by five points among RVs (50 percent to 45 percent), which includes leads of seven points among independents, fourteen points among seniors, and 22 points among those aged 18 to 29 years. And Bush’s approval rating is down to 44 percent with 48 percent disapproval (40 percent/49 percent among independents).

The Pew poll also has satisfaction with the direction of the country down to 33 percent, with 61 percent dissatisfied. In early January, the same indicator was at 45 percent/48 percent.

And Kerry, as in the Gallup poll, is faring better in matchups with Bush on who can do the best job on various issues. Kerry is now leading by 22 points on improving the health care system (up from 13); by 15 on improving the job situation (up from 8); by 15 on improving education (up from 4); and by 10 on improving economic conditions (up from 5). He has also mostly eliminated Bush’s leads on making wise decisions about foreign policy (Bush is now leading by a single point, down from 6 previously) and, critically, about what to do in Iraq (Bush is now leading by 3 points, down from 12 before).

Looks like all those pundits who thought Bush was escaping unscathed from the recent torrent of bad news were calling it early—way early.

All Trial Heats Are Not Created Equal

Gallup poll of 1,003 adults for CNN/USA Today, released May 10 (conducted May 7–9)

The latest Gallup poll has Kerry ahead by six points (Kerry-Bush, registered voters). Or, wait, maybe that’s Bush ahead by a point (Kerry-Bush, likely voters). Or could it be Kerry by five (Kerry-Bush-Nader, registered voters)? Or did I mean by Bush by two (Kerry-Bush-Nader, likely voters)? These are all trial heat figures from Gallup’s latest poll, so all figures are “correct.” Kind of confusing, no? That leads many poll consumers to wonder: Which figure should I pay the most attention to? Which figure most fairly represents the current state of the race?

Here are my recommendations. Start with the issue of likely voters (LVs) versus registered voters (RVs). At this point, most polls are surveying only RVs and I believe that’s appropriate and, in fact, preferable. It is way too early to put much faith in likely voter screens or models as representing very accurately the voters who will actually show up on election day. There is reasonable evidence that careful likely voter methodologies work well close to the election and do fairly accurately capture that pool of voters. But there is no such evidence for LV samples drawn this far out.

Indeed, my understanding is that Gallup does LVs this early not so much because they believe or know they are capturing election day voters this early, but more so that they (or their clients) can avoid having to explain sudden shifts in the trial heat question as LV data replaces RV data in the fall (the traditional time to switch from RVs to LVs). There have apparently been some problems with this in the past, so reporting both from the very beginning of the campaign eliminates any potential embarrassments along these lines. But that doesn’t mean the LV data is any better at this point in time—it merely means they’re providing it.

In fact, my view is the LV data are worse. First, the sample size for LVs is smaller, which increases the chance for error in measuring voter sentiment. Second, since the composition of the LV sample will shift depending on how political developments are affecting interest and intensity levels among different groups of voters, you partly are measuring this intensity and interest, rather than broad voter sentiment. At this point in the campaign, I don’t think you want to cloud your measure of voter sentiment with this extraneous and nonpredictive information.

And then there are the comparability problems. LV samples are difficult even to compare to one another, since methodologies differ, and clearly can’t be compared very well to RV samples, which are the bulk of polls at this time. That’s another strike against paying much attention to LV results this early.

The second big issue is whether to look at Kerry-Bush or Kerry-Bush-Nader results. In my view, it is highly probable that Nader’s candidacy will amount to very little and, therefore, including him in Bush-Kerry matchups, where inattentive voters can declare their “support” for the “independent” Ralph Nader, wildly inflates his importance and overstates Bush’s strength vis a vis Kerry. The reasons I think it highly probable that Nader’s candidacy won’t amount to much are: (1) it’s quite possible he won’t even be on the ballot in a lot of states; (2) he has no clear party line to run on this time; (3) he lacks the prominent supporters he had in 2000; and (4) 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. In short, Nader’s declared support in polls is all almost all soft with very few hardcore supporters. That is likely to drive down his vote far below what he received last time . . . and last time he received only 2.7 percent.

So, here are my two simple rules for sorting through the blizzard of trial heat numbers now available to the average poll consumer:

1. Pay more attention to RV results than LV results.

2. Pay more attention to Bush-Kerry results than to Bush-Kerry-Nader results.

These rules don’t mean ignore the rest of the data. On the contrary, immerse yourself in as much of it as you can stand. But these rules provide a way to sift through the available data to get the best sense of how the contest between Bush and Kerry is developing.

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