Public Opinion Watch

Ruy Teixeira
Ruy Teixeira

(covering polls and related articles from the week of June 21–27)

In this edition of Public Opinion Watch:

• Gallup vs. Fox News
• Persuadable Voters Aren’t Persuaded
• Are Independents Giving Up on Bush?

Gallup vs. Fox News

Gallup poll of 1,005 adults for CNN/USA Today, released June 24 (conducted June 21–23)

Opinion Dynamics poll of 900 registered voters nationally and 750 registered voters in each of four states—Florida, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania—for Fox News, released June 24 (conducted June 22–23)

The new Gallup poll is chock full of interesting data. Perhaps the most interesting finding is this: for the first time in this poll, a majority of Americans (54 percent to 44 percent) now say that the United States made a mistake sending troops to Iraq. Less than three weeks ago, the public was still saying, by 58 percent to 41 percent, that sending troops was not a mistake.

Note that these data were collected before the wave of violence that was unleashed last Thursday in Iraq.

Another turnaround has occurred on whether the war with Iraq has made the United States safer from terrorism. Just 37 percent now say that the war has made us safer, compared to 55 percent who say it has not; when Gallup last asked this question in mid-December it was 56 percent to 33 percent the other way.

The poll also finds a majority (51 percent to 46 percent) saying that it was not worth going to war with Iraq, pretty much where this measure has been since late May.

Bush’s overall approval rating, compared to Gallup’s last measurement three weeks ago, is down 1 point, to 48 percent. His rating on Iraq is up 1 point, to 42 percent, while his rating on terrorism is down 2 points, to 54 percent.

By far the biggest change is his rating on the economy: up 6 points, to 47 percent, with 50 percent disapproval. This is close to his mid-April rating in this poll (46 percent/52 percent), though still substantially below his 54 percent/43 percent rating in early January.

Note that the latest Washington Post poll, conducted right before the Gallup poll, registered only a slight improvement in Bush’s economic approval rating (just 2 points) and had his disapproval rating dropping only 1 point, compared to Gallup, which has his disapproval rating declining by 8 points.

Despite Bush’s improved economy rating in the Gallup poll, voters still favor Kerry over Bush (53 percent to 40 percent) on which candidate can better handle the economy. That Kerry advantage is essentially unchanged since early May.

On the situation in Iraq, Kerry and Bush are nearly tied (47 percent to 46 percent in Bush’s favor), a slightly improvement for Kerry over his 3-point deficit in early May. This near-tie is notable, of course, because sentiment is now so strikingly negative about the Iraq war. Perhaps Kerry’s failure to gain an advantage reflects the public’s view, captured in other polls, that Kerry does not have a clear plan himself for dealing with the Iraq situation.

Another interesting finding is that, while Bush has a modest lead (51 percent to 43 percent) over Kerry in terms of who the public trusts more to handle the responsibilities of commander-in-chief, the public expresses an identical degree of confidence in the ability of Bush and Kerry to handle the responsibilities of commander-in-chief (61 percent in each case).

In terms of favorability ratings, it seems significant that Kerry’s net favorability rating (favorable minus unfavorable) is now substantially higher than Bush’s. Kerry is +23 on this measure (58 percent favorable/35 percent unfavorable), up from +17 in Gallup’s last measurement in April. In contrast, Bush is just +8 (53 percent/45 percent), down from +14 in April. These data are consistent with the June 20 New York Times story by Adam Nagourney and Jim Rutenberg that suggested that the GOP’s frontal assault on Kerry has not had much success creating an unfavorable image of him.

Turning to the horse race, as ever we must, Kerry leads Bush by 4 points (49 percent to 45 percent) among registered voters (RVs). That approximates Gallup’s early June result when Kerry led 49 percent to 44 percent.

Of course, there’s bound to be confusion about this, since Gallup and its clients tend to highlight the likely voter (LV) rather than RV results, which, in this case, actually show Bush ahead by a point (49 percent 48 percent). And then some media outlets tend to report the Kerry-Bush-Nader results, rather than the Kerry-Bush results, which further clouds the issue.

Let me reproduce, as a public service, my thinking about why you are well-advised, at this stage of the race, to pay more attention to RV than LV results, especially when both are reported. As for why it is preferable to look at Kerry–Bush matchup results, rather than Kerry–Bush–Nader results, I will refer you to a recent analysis I did on the issue, which only seems more timely now that Nader has failed to secure the Green Party nomination:

“There’s been considerable confusion about which trial heat results to pay the most attention to at this point in the race. Here’s my take, which should help clarify why I choose to focus on certain results over others.

“One issue is likely voters (LVs) vs. 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/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 they are capturing election day voters this early, but more so that they can avoid having to explain sudden shifts in the horse race 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, since the sample size for LVs is smaller and 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, additional volatility is built into the LV samples that is not there with the RV samples.

“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.”

So, RVs and Kerry–Bush it is! Looking further at this match-up, Gallup shows Bush ahead by 8 points in the solid red states (won by Bush by 6 points or more in 2000), but Kerry ahead by14 points in the solid blue states (won by Gore by 6 points or more) and ahead by 9 points in the purple states (decided by less than 6 points in 2000). And Kerry is carrying independents nationwide by 10 points and moderates by 24 points.

Pretty good news for Mr. Kerry. Some of you may have heard, though, that the latest Fox News poll has wildly different results from the ones just summarized. Let’s take a closer look at that Fox News data.

This is definitely a poll that Matthew Dowd can (finally) be happy about. While the Gallup folks were busy collecting their data (June 21–23), the fair and balanced folks over at Fox News were busy collecting theirs (June 22–23). To say the Fox News results differ somewhat from the Gallup results would be to considerably understate the case.

The Fox poll has Bush up by 6 points (48 percent to 42 percent) among RVs. As discussed above, Gallup has Kerry up by four (49 percent to 45 percent) in the identical Kerry–Bush RV matchup. Kind of different!

And check this out. Fox has Bush ahead by 20 points in the solid red states (Gallup had Bush ahead by 8), Kerry ahead by only 3 points (!) in the solid blue states (Gallup: Kerry by 14) and Kerry ahead by an identical 3-point margin in purple states (Gallup: Kerry by 9). Huh?!? Kerry ahead by only 3 points in the solid blue states—a margin no larger than in the battleground states?

Was Fox really polling the same country? You’ve gotta wonder. The survey dates of the two polls are virtually identical, we’re talking about the same universe (registered voters) and the same matchup—and yet the results are starkly different.

So who do we believe? Well, if it’s a choice between Fox News or the Gallup Organization, I don’t find this a particularly difficult choice to make. To tell the truth, I rarely pay much attention to Fox News polls, which are invariably and significantly pro-Bush relative to other public polls, but this one seemed so egregiously off and so directly contradicted by the Gallup data that I just had to comment on it.

You might well ask: How on earth do the Fox News folks get such weird results? I don’t really know, but one possibility is that they weight their data by party ID. Under this procedure, if you’ve got, in your view, too many Democrats (like in that pesky Los Angeles Times poll), you simply weight them down and weight the Republicans up so you get to the presumed proper distribution of party ID (those respondents can’t really be serious about identifying with the Democrats!).

I don’t know that this is true of the Fox News poll. But it certainly would help explain why their horse race results differ so much from Gallup’s (who, like good girls and boys, never weight by party ID—see this excellent article in the LA Times explaining why public polling organizations worth their salt eschew this practice). Or how Fox News—again, polling on essentially identical days—could find John Kerry’s favorability rating at 42 percent favorable/43 percent unfavorable, while Gallup has it 58 percent favorable/35 percent unfavorable.

While we’re on the subject of Fox News polls, it’s worth mentioning their new polls of Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania, which also seem, well, a little surprising. For example, a June 21–23 American Research Group (ARG) poll of Ohio had Kerry ahead by 6 points. But Fox, polling on June 22–23, has Bush ahead by four points in the same state. Hmmm. Similarly, in a June 21–23 ARG poll of Florida, Kerry was ahead by 2 points, while Fox’s June 22–23 poll of Florida has Bush ahead by 9 points!

Curiouser and curiouser said Alice. Now, if it was anyone but Fox, I might be tempted to ascribe these differences to ARG’s use of LVs rather than RVs, as Fox uses. But these are mighty big differences and this is Fox, so I don’t buy it.

I especially don’t buy it when we look at Fox’s Pennsylvania results. Fox, polling on June 22–23, has Bush ahead by 3 points among RVs in Pennsylvania. But, the highly reputable Quinnipiac University poll, polling on June 21–22 and also polling RVs, had Kerry ahead by 6 points. What a difference a day makes—or, considerably more likely, what a difference the Fox News treatment makes.

I have a new slogan for Fox News: “Pro-Bush Results Guaranteed.” Unlike “Fair and Balanced,” this would allow them to stick closely to their empirical record.

Persuadable Voters Aren’t Persuaded

Annenberg Election Survey poll of 1,431 adults by Schulman, Ronca, Bucuvalas, released June 23 (conducted June 8–21)

There’s some good news in the latest Annenberg Election Survey for President Bush. His overall approval rating in the poll, conducted June 8–21, is at the stratospheric level (for him these days) of 52 percent. (Note, however, that the latest Washington Post poll, conducted at the very end of the Annenberg period, June 17–20, pegged his approval rating at 47 percent, the Post poll’s worst rating ever for him.)

The poll also found Bush’s approval rating in specific areas like the economy and Iraq slightly improved over their late May levels, though still solidly net negative. And on a series of personal characteristics such as “inspiring,” “trustworthy,” and “shares my values,” Bush’s ratings are generally up over their May values.

The bad news for Bush is that, among “persuadable voters”—the quarter of the electorate who seem open to changing their minds about which candidate to support—he has gone nowhere. In fact, on that series of personal characteristics I just mentioned, his ratings among persuadable voters have almost all gone down, not up, since the previous Annenberg survey.

Moreover, only 27 percent of persuadable voters currently think that the country is headed in the right direction, identical with the May figure. Bush’s approval rating has actually slid a point—down to 44 percent—among these voters. And his approval ratings for the economy (31 percent approval/59 percent disapproval) and Iraq (26 percent/68 percent) are also slight declines from his already-abysmal May ratings.

And check out these figures for persuadable voters on Iraq-related issues, all more negative than they were last month. Only 34 percent of these voters feel that the situation in Iraq was worth going to war over, compared to 59 percent who feel that it was not. Just 17 percent believe that the war in Iraq has reduced the risk of terrorism against the United States, compared to 71 percent who believe it has increased that risk. And a mere 37 percent of persuadable voters want to keep the troops in Iraq until a stable government is formed, while 57 percent now say that they want to bring the troops home as soon as possible.

I guess you could say the persuadable voters haven’t been persuaded.

Are Independents Giving Up on Bush?

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

I covered the basics of the new Washington Post poll last week. This week I want to comment on the notably negative views of Bush expressed by independents in this poll (the Post makes basic crosstabular information from their polls available interactively on their Web site, a facility that is well worth checking out).

These views are so negative that they suggest a decisive majority of independent voters may be in the process of giving up on Bush—becoming more and more convinced that his performance in office has been too poor to merit reelection and that Kerry is almost certainly a better bet than he to run the country. The more that perception settles in among these voters, the more the GOP will have to rely on big Republican turnout that is not countered by big Democratic turnout to win. I consider the latter a highly unlikely scenario in this election year.

In this poll, Bush’s overall approval rating among independents is just 44 percent, with 56 percent disapproval. And in the two critical areas of Iraq (36 percent/62 percent) and the economy (35 percent/65 percent) his ratings among this group are truly dreadful and much worse than among the public as a whole.

And there is not a single issue area in this poll on which independents prefer Bush to Kerry. In fact, the closest Bush comes to Kerry is on the situation in Iraq and on the U.S. campaign against terrorism, where he lags Kerry by a comparatively modest five points. In all other areas, Kerry has impressive double-digit leads over Bush: international affairs (13 points); health care (seventeen points); the economy (17 points); taxes (19 points); the federal budget deficit (20 points); education (21 points); and prescription drug benefits for the elderly (26 points).

How can Bush win with this kind of sentiment among independents? I don’t believe he can. And how well positioned is Bush at this point to play to the independent voter and turn these numbers around? Not well I think given the hard-line conservatism he’s practiced since he was elected. The (independent) chickens may be coming home to roost.

Ruy Teixeira is a joint fellow at the Center for American Progress and The Century Foundation. His column, Public Opinion Watch, appears on Wednesdays.