Public Opinion Watch

Ruy Teixeira
Ruy Teixeira

(covering polls and related articles from the week of June 14-20)

In this edition of Public Opinion Watch:

• Kerry Ahead on Handling the U.S. Campaign against Terrorism
• Now that You Mention It, It Has Been a Pretty Lousy Three Years
• Kerry and Iraq

Kerry Ahead on Handling the U.S. Campaign against Terrorism

TNS poll of 1,201 adults for ABC News/Washington Post, released June 21 (conducted June 17-20)

The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll suggests rather strongly that President Bush has failed to generate much political benefit from a series of events that has included a good jobs report, some diplomatic progress on the Iraq situation, and the funeral of Ronald Reagan. In the poll, conducted June 17-20, Kerry is ahead of Bush among registered voters by 8 points (53-45).

Any more bounces like this one and John Kerry may not have to bother to campaign at all.

In perhaps the poll’s most startling result, the public now says it prefers Kerry over Bush on the question of who would do a better job handling the U.S. campaign against terrorism (48-47). That’s a big change from late May, when Bush was leading Kerry 52-39 – which, in turn, was down from a 21-point Bush lead the month before.

I think I detect a pattern here. Kerry also is ahead of Bush on handling health care (+21), taxes (+13!), prescription drug benefits for the elderly (+12), education (+10), international affairs (+8), the economy (+5) and the federal budget deficit (+4). In fact, the only area where the public says it prefers Bush is, interestingly enough, on handling the situation in Iraq, where he leads Kerry by 5 points (50-45).

I say “interestingly enough” because other data in the poll show that people are not at all happy with how Bush is currently handling the situation in Iraq. His approval rating on Iraq, while improved over last month in the same poll, is still solidly negative at 44 percent approval/55 percent disapproval. Moreover, the poll has the most negative reading yet on whether “the war with Iraq was worth fighting”: 47 percent say yes, compared to 52 percent who say no. And a remarkable 71 percent now say that there has been an “unacceptable number of US military casualties in Iraq” – also the most negative reading yet.

A host of other indicators also show the most negative results so far, including whether the war with Iraq has “contributed to the long-term security of the United States” (down to 51 percent), has harmed U.S. relations with other countries with other countries that opposed the war (up to 63 percent), has fostered long-term peace and stability in the Mideast (down to 42 percent), or has damaged the United States’ image in the rest of the world (up to 76 percent). And a new high has been reached (42 percent) in the number of Americans who say we should withdraw our military forces from Iraq “even if that means that civil order is not restored there.”

Bush’s approval ratings beyond the situation in Iraq also are unimpressive to downright poor. His overall approval rating has remained at 47 percent over the last month, according to the poll, while his disapproval rating has risen slightly to 51 percent.

That’s bad enough for a president who had hoped to start recovering politically. But the real shocker is the drop in his approval rating on handling the U.S. campaign against terrorism: down from 58 percent approval/39 percent disapproval last month to 50 percent approval/48 percent disapproval today.

Of Bush’s approval ratings in other areas, only one, for education, breaks 50 percent, coming in at 51 percent approval/45 percent disapproval. The others are just plain bad: the economy (46/53, barely changed from the past two months); international affairs (43/55); taxes (42/54); prescription drug benefits for the elderly (40/50); the federal budget deficit (39/56); and health care (39/57).

Doesn’t the public approve of anything? Sure: Bill Clinton. His approval rating is up seven points in the past year to a healthy 62 percent today. Perhaps the public’s increased misgivings about Bush’s performance are making the Clinton era, despite Clinton’s personal foibles, look pretty good by comparison.

Now that You Mention It, It Has Been a Pretty Lousy Three Years

Greenberg Quinlan Rosner poll of 1,007 registered voters for Mother Jones magazine, released June 16 (conducted May 17-22)

Mother Jones magazine released an interesting new poll on June 16 that shows, in more detail than any other recent poll, just how negatively voters feel about the course the country has taken in the past three years and how ready they are for a change.

For example, the poll, conducted May 17-22, asked voters about a series of issues and whether the country is now better off, or worse off, on that issue than it was three years ago. The most lopsidedly negative response concerned the deficit, for which just 8 percent said the country was doing better than three years ago, compared to a stunning 80 percent who said the country was doing worse.

Perhaps the deficit rating is not a surprise, but it is impressive how negative voters were on a wide variety of other issues: job security (19/65, for a -46 net rating); incomes keeping up with the cost of living (20/65, -45); access to affordable health care (19/59, -40); personal privacy (19/59, -40); moral values (22/58, -36); creating good-paying jobs (27/62, -35); the economy (31/62, -31); public schools (27/51, -24); tolerance for people not like us (27/51, -24); the influence of special interests (20/43, -23); and even the tax burden (29/54, -25). (Note that the poll asked the same set of questions about progress in the past three years but applied to the respondent himself or herself, not to the country as a whole. Somewhat surprisingly, the answers, while a bit less negative, were very close indeed to the responses for the country as a whole.)

No wonder only 30 percent of voters in this poll felt the country was going in the right direction, compared to 62 percent who felt the country was seriously off on the wrong track. Similarly, just 38 percent wanted to continue in the direction Bush is headed, compared to 57 percent who wanted to go in a significantly different direction.

In terms of winners and losers in the three years of this administration, voters have views that are consistent with their views about the country’s lack of progress. Voters felt overwhelmingly that the wealthy were winners, not losers (85/9), as well as big corporations (71/22) and CEOs (65/25). The poor, on the other hand, were viewed as losers, not winners (15/75), as were American workers (30/63) and the middle class (37/56).

Other interesting findings from the survey:

1. Kerry is ahead of Bush among registered voters 49-44, including leads of 27 percentage points among moderates, 23 points among young voters (ages 18-29), and 9 points among independents.

2. Bush’s net approval rating is negative in the poll (47/49) and is only 42 percent among independents.

3. Almost without exception in the poll, the views of independents and Democrats are relatively close together, and the views of independents and Republicans are quite far apart. That includes views of how much progress the country has made in three years, who the winners and losers have been economically, and attitudes toward the Iraq war.

4. Attitudes toward labor unions were strikingly positive. Only John McCain scored better in a series of thermometer readings included in the poll (Sweeney-McCain: the dream ticket?)

5. Registered voters who were not deemed likely voters were heavily skewed toward the Democrats in everything from party identification and voting intentions to their views on how much progress has been made under the Bush administration. That suggests that if turnout is high this November – as almost all campaign interest measures thus far suggest – it will be a boon to the Democrats.

6. If you include leaners, Democrats have a ten-point party identification advantage among registered voters in the poll. Perhaps that 13-point Democratic advantage on party identification in the recent Los Angeles Times poll (see last week’s Public Opinion Watch) wasn’t so strange after all.

Kerry and Iraq

Los Angeles Times poll of 3,665 adults (1,477 nationwide and the rest in the three midwestern battleground states of Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin), released June 9 (conducted June 5–8)

Center for Survey Research and Analysis poll of 1,280 adults, including 500 Catholics, for Time magazine, released June 13 (conducted June 2-4)

A front-page article in the June 13 Washington Post detailed Democrats’ concerns that

[Kerry] has not crisply articulated what a Kerry presidency would stand for beyond undoing much of the Bush agenda.

So far, these concerns have not slowed Kerry. But if Kerry cannot change this perception coming out of next month’s Democratic convention in Boston, it could prove much harder for the party to maximize turnout, win over Ralph Nader voters and keep independents from swinging to Bush, they say.

I agree with Noam Scheiber in The New Republic that the real problem here for Kerry is less maximizing turnout/exciting the base than it is keeping swing voters on his side. But, as Scheiber acknowledges, the fact that “Kerry hasn’t yet stumbled onto a compelling, affirmative pitch” could eventually be a real problem with these voters.

A compelling, affirmative pitch for Kerry may therefore be essential on both domestic and international issues, but that need is clearest on the international side, particularly on Iraq. Consider these data from the recent Los Angeles Times poll.

According to the poll, Bush’s approval rating on Iraq is just 44 percent, with 55 percent disapproval. By 53-43, the public now believes the situation in Iraq was not worth going to war over. And by 61-35, it believes the United States is getting bogged down in Iraq rather than making strides toward establishing freedom and democracy. Finally, just 35 percent believe Bush has offered a clear plan on how he would handle the Iraq situation, compared to 44 percent who believe he has not.

Pretty negative indeed. Trouble is, just 15 percent think Kerry has offered a clear plan on the Iraq situation, compared to 34 percent who believe he has not and 43 percent who say they have not yet heard enough from Kerry to form an opinion. In addition, 55 percent say they generally know not too much or nothing at all about Kerry’s proposals on foreign affairs. These are not encouraging figures.

Moreover, one of the primary components of Kerry’s Iraq plan, such as it is, meets with a tepid response. Just 46 percent say they agree with Kerry’s assessment that “President Bush has lost credibility around the world and that only a new president can rally the support of U.S. allies to help stabilize Iraq,” compared to 47 percent who disagree.

In an intriguing manifestation of this possible problem for Kerry, a recent Time magazine poll that included an oversample of Catholics, regarded as a swing constituency, found Kerry ahead among those voters by 49 percent to 38 percent on who has a plan for the economy but behind Bush by a point (44-45) on who has a plan for Iraq and trailing by 12 points (38-50) on who has a plan for fighting terrorism. So Kerry has some work to do to convince voters, especially swing voters, that he has real ideas on how to bring the Iraq war to a successful conclusion – in other words, that he has a plausible and responsible exit strategy for the United States. While he is probably right to say that just announcing an exit date won’t work, either as policy or politically (by 73-24, the public, according to the Los Angeles Times poll, opposes simply setting “a deadline for the withdrawal of all American troops in Iraq”), that doesn’t mean that what he has put on the table so far is adequate – especially in terms of impressing swing voters. Sooner or later, he has got to confront that problem if he wants to maximize his chances of beating George Bush in November.

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