Public Opinion Watch

Ruy Teixeira
Ruy Teixeira

(covering polls and related articles from the week of May 24–30, 2004)

In this edition of Public Opinion Watch:

• Independent Voters Look for an Exit Strategy
• Interesting Facts about Religion and Politics
• Battleground States Update
• Sorting Out Recent Horse Race Data

Independent Voters Look for an Exit Strategy

CBS News poll of 1,113 adults, released May 24 (conducted May 20–23)

TNS poll of 1,005 adults for ABC News/Washington Post, released May 24 (conducted May 20–23)

It has been widely acknowledged that Kerry has a problem differentiating himself from Bush on how to handle the Iraq situation, given that Kerry won’t commit himself to, or even talk about, an exit strategy. But it has been widely misunderstood that this problem lies in Kerry’s appeal to Democratic voters.

Personally, I think Democratic voters are likely to stick with Kerry no matter what his Iraq position—because they want to get rid of Bush so badly. What the Kerry campaign should be worrying about, in my view, is his ability to appeal to independent voters, without some kind of exit strategy.

Consider how fed up political independents are getting with the Iraq situation. In the latest CBS News poll, an overwhelming majority of independents say that the result of the war with Iraq hasn’t been worth the loss of American life and other costs of the war (67 percent to 25 percent). And in the new ABC News/Washington Post poll, by more than two to one (65 percent to 32 percent), independents believe we have gotten bogged down in Iraq rather than making good progress.

Moreover, according to the CBS News poll, this is a group that now believes, by 52 percent to 40 percent, that we made a mistake getting involved in the war in Iraq and also believes, by 49 percent to 44 percent, that we should have just stayed out of Iraq, rather than taking military action. Finally, independents have been in favor, for the last month, of turning over “control to Iraqis as soon as possible, even if Iraq is not completely stable” rather than having “United States troops stay in Iraq as long as it takes to make sure Iraq is a stable democracy” (essentially the Kerry position). In the latest CBS News poll, the margin among independents is, by 51 percent to 43 percent, in favor of turning over control to Iraqis as soon as possible.

Despite these sentiments and the clear direction of change among these voters—toward less and less interest in staying the course and more and more interest in an exit strategy—Kerry has refused, so far, to even mention the “E” word. Why?

One reason may be because he believes it would be wrong simply to withdraw the troops and abandon Iraq. And he’s right about that. But there are ways to talk about an exit strategy without being irresponsible; an exit strategy doesn’t mean just yanking the troops out—it means setting a date to leave and a plan to turn genuine control of Iraq to an elected Iraqi government within that time frame.

James Steinberg and Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution have sketched the elements of such a plan, with an exit date of the end of 2005, hardly a precipitate departure. Other sober-minded foreign policy analysts such as Leslie Gelb, former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, have called for a similar approach.

An exit strategy: it’s not just for hard-core peaceniks anymore. Increasingly, mainstream analysts and mainstream voters—for example, independent, swing voters—are leaning in that direction as well. Kerry has a chance to reach these voters with something clear and definite about how he intends to get the United States out of Iraq. And if he doesn’t, who’s to say that Bush might not put one on the table first?

Interesting Facts about Religion and Politics

Ryan Lizza, “Mythical Evangelicals, Skeptical Catholics,” New Republic Web site, May 26

Ryan Lizza, in the article cited above, reports on a recent (May 23–25) conference on religion and politics hosted by the Ethics and Public Policy Center. That conference included a presentation by John Green of the University of Akron, perhaps the leading academic analyst of this topic, on preliminary results from the 2004 National Survey on Religion and Politics (NSRP). The release of these findings, some of which are cited below, makes it a good time to review salient facts about the relationship between religion and politics.

1. Most progressives are religious. For example, in 2000, 81 percent of Gore voters professed a religious affiliation. That’s within shouting distance of the 89 percent of Bush voters who professed a religious affiliation (2000 NSRP).

2. It is true that progressives attend church less frequently than conservatives. In the 2000 Voter News Service (VNS) exit poll, 33 percent of Gore voters said that they attended church once a week or more, compared to 49 percent of Bush voters who said that they attended church that often. (Note that both figures are probably too high—VNS data show levels of attendance that are inconsistent with all other data sources—but the magnitude of attendance difference between Gore and Bush voters is probably about right.)

But the whole U.S. population is trending toward less observance, not more. For example, in surveys taken over the past thirty years, it is the ranks of those who never or rarely attend church that have grown the most. According to a National Opinion Research Center (NORC) study, those who said that they never attended church or attended less than once a year went from 18 percent in 1972 to 30 percent in 1998. Confirming this latter figure, the National Election Study found that those who say that they never attended was at 33 percent of the citizenry and 27 percent of voters in 2000. That is a group about twice the size of those who identify themselves as members of the religious right, and it is a group that has tended vigorously to support Democrats rather than Republicans.

Indeed, according to the NORC study, if you add to the 30 percent mentioned above those who say they attend church only once or a few times a year, it turns out that about half the U.S. population attends church only a few times a year or less.

3. In the 2000 VNS exit poll, it was widely noted that Bush won the support of voters who say that they attend church more than weekly by 63 percent to 36 percent and voters who say that they attend church weekly by 57 percent to 40 percent. And these voters made up 43 percent of the electorate. But even according to these unusually high VNS figures, the more observant groups were only a bit over two-fifths of the electorate. Each of the groups in the less observant three-fifths of voters—those who said they attended church a few times a month, a few times a year or never—preferred Gore over Bush, with support particularly strong among never-attenders, who gave Gore a 61 percent to 32 percent margin.

4. Not all evangelicals are conservative Republicans. Far from it. In the 2000 NSRP, a large subgroup of white evangelicals—”less observant” white evangelicals (about one quarter of white evangelicals and 7 percent of all voters)—supported Bush by only 55 percent to 45 percent. And in 1996, the same group either split their votes between Clinton and Dole or actually supported Clinton, depending on which survey you look at.

Early 2004 NSRP data from this spring use a different categorization (“traditional,” “centrist,” and “modernist,” evangelicals) and also show a progressive group of evangelicals—the modernists, about one-sixth of evangelicals. This group actually supports Kerry over Bush by nine points (46 percent to 37 percent).

5. Karl Rove has claimed that there were four million evangelicals who didn’t go to the polls in 2000, but who can be turned out in 2004. This is an urban legend. There is, in fact, no evidence that evangelicals’ turnout in 2000 was particularly low (it was about at the national average) and that, therefore, there are, in any meaningful sense, “missing” evangelicals in the voting pool.

John Green has said that these missing evangelicals Rove alludes to are more “mythical” than missing. And, to the extent that they might really exist, he believes that they are far more likely to be in solid red states than in contested battleground states.

6. Conservatives and the GOP have made aggressive efforts to target Catholics. But there is no evidence that this targeting is actually working. “Traditional” Catholics, to be sure, are strongly supporting Bush (60-30), according to the 2004 NSRP data. But they are only 27 percent of all Catholics. The rest of Catholics–73 percent–are supporting Kerry. The includes the “modernist” group (31 percent of Catholics) who support Kerry by a lop-sided 61-33 and the “centrist” Catholics–who are both the largest (42 percent) Catholic group and the real swing group among Catholics–who support him by 45-41.

More broadly, there is little evidence that centrist and modernist Catholics, which is the overwhelming majority of Catholics–including among Hispanics–are likely to vote the conservative social positions of the Catholic church on issues like abortion or gay marriage. That is what the GOP has been banking on, but it is highly unlikely to happen. Polling data suggest strongly that these Catholics are far more concerned and moved electorally by other issues, such as the economy, education, health care and so on.

7. The GOP also has targeted Jews. Again, there is little evidence that their appeals are working. In the 2004 NSRP, Jews give Kerry a very healthy forty-six-point lead (70 percent to 24 percent).

Battleground States Update

Zogby polls of likely voters in sixteen battleground states for WSJ.com, released May 24 (conducted May 18–23)

Schulman, Ronca, Bucuvalas poll of 1,997 adults, including 800 in 20 battleground states, for Annenberg Election Survey, released May 26 (conducted May 17–23)

The Annenberg Election Survey released data last week that suggest that Kerry’s ads in the battleground states are having the desired effect of improving public impressions of Kerry in those states. In the May 3–16 period, Kerry’s favorability rating in the battleground states was 39 favorable/33 unfavorable. In the May 17–23 period, his rating improved to 44 percent/32 percent. As for Bush, his favorability rating in these states has declined from 48 percent/38 percent to 44 percent/44 percent.

Other recently released swing states data are also positive for Kerry. Recent Gallup data (see below) show Kerry ahead by five points in the “purple states” (the sixteen states where the 2000 winning margin was less than six points; note that Annenberg’s “battleground states” include all twenty states where the Bush and Kerry campaigns have been running television advertisements—that means, in addition to the sixteen purple states, Annenberg includes Colorado, Delaware, Louisiana, and West Virginia). And Zogby recently has released a group of sixteen “battleground state” polls (here, battleground states are the same as Gallup’s purple states, with the exception of West Virginia being substituted for Maine), conducted May 18–23 for WSJ.com. These polls show Kerry ahead in twelve of these sixteen battleground states: Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington, and Wisconsin. Bush is ahead only in four: Arizona, Iowa, Tennessee, and West Virginia.

Note that all these polls included Nader in the trial heat mix, so these results are particularly bad news for the Bush campaign. Note also that, where Kerry leads in states that were blue in 2000, his leads are all outside the margin of error. In addition, his leads in two of the states that were red in 2000—Ohio (+5) and New Hampshire (+10)—also are outside the margin of error.

One caveat: the Zogby polls were conducted over the internet with “respondents who agreed to take part. Likely voters from each state followed instructions sent by e-mail that led them to the survey located on Zogby’s secure servers in Utica, N.Y.” Well, this isn’t like an internet “poll” where anyone who wants to can participate, but one still wonders whether this kind of polling might be biased in ways that would throw off the results. I don’t know that for sure, but it’s a caution that’s worth keeping in mind.

Sorting Out Recent Horse Race Data

CBS News poll of 1,113 adults, released May 24 (conducted May 20–23)

TNS poll of 1,005 adults for ABC News/Washington Post, released May 24 (conducted May 20–23)

David W. Moore, “Presidential Race Remains Close,” Gallup Organization, May 25

Three major public polls were released last week with virtually identical survey dates. Comparing apples to apples—that is, my favorite apples of registed voter (RV), Kerry-Bush matchups—all three polls agree Kerry is ahead: Gallup by 48 percent to 46 percent, ABC News by 49 percent to 47 percent, and CBS News by 49 percent to 41 percent.

On the CBS News result, their internals show Kerry leading by 16 points (!) among independents (51 percent to 35 percent). Considering that Kerry only needs to win independents by a few points pretty much to guarantee himself an election victory, that’s quite a significant result.

For what it’s worth, Gallup finally has its RVs and likely voters (LVs) agreeing: Kerry is ahead in both samples by two. In their previous poll, Bush was ahead by one point among LVs, while behind by six points among RVs.

Gallup also provides a breakdown of the RV, Kerry–Bush matchup by red, blue, and purple states (thanks, Gallup!). That breakdown shows Kerry leading by five points in the purple states (50 percent to 45 percent). In 2000, Gore and Bush were dead-even (48 percent to 48 percent) in the purple states.

All in all, a pretty good set of horse race results for Mr. Kerry.