Public Opinion Watch

Ruy Teixeira
Ruy Teixeira

(covering polls and related articles from the week of June 28–July 4)

In this edition of Public Opinion Watch:

• The Polls Are All Singing the Same Song
• If This Election Is a Referendum on the Incumbent, Bush Is in Serious Trouble
• Swing Voters, Religious Voters, Catholic Voters

The Polls Are All Singing the Same Song

NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of 1,025 registered voters, released July 1 (conducted June 25–28)

Another major poll, another boatload of bad news for the Bush campaign. Here’s the latest from the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll on what the public thinks, very consistent with other recently released data.

1. Bush is doing a lousy job. His overall approval rating is 45 percent, with 49 percent disapproval, lowest ever in this poll. His approval rating on the economy is identical, an improvement from NBC News’ May rating but still net negative and about in line with their March rating, which predated almost all of the recent job growth. His foreign policy rating is lower at 44 percent/52 percent and his rating on dealing with the war on terrorism is now under 50 percent, with approval (48 percent) barely higher than disapproval (47 percent). The last time NBC News asked this question was in January and it makes for quite a contrast. In January, Bush was a net +32 on his war on terrorism approval rating (63 percent/31 percent). Now he’s down to +1—a big, big change.

2. The country’s not going in the right direction. In the NBC News poll, just 36 percent think so, up three points from May, but still down seven points from March in this poll.

3. The economy is still in trouble. A strong majority (57 percent) continues to think that “the signs point to an economy that is going to be in trouble—jobs are moving overseas, the budget deficit is growing, and too many jobs do not have health insurance or pensions” rather than “the signs point to an economy that is going to be strong—jobs are being created, inflation is low, and the stock market is up.”

The poll also asked voters how strongly they agreed, on a 5-point scale where five is totally agree and one is totally disagree, with the following statement, which is, almost verbatim, the standard Bush riff on the economy:

Our economy is strong and it is getting stronger. America has added more than 1.4 million new jobs since last August. The rate of home ownership in America is at an all-time high, business investment is growing, the stock market is improving, consumer confidence is increasing, and personal incomes are on the rise.

Just 16 percent gave it a five (totally agree) and another 19 percent gave it a 4. Not so good. And here’s the other statement NBC News gave to voters, which sounds like it came out of a Kerry speech:

The net loss of 1.2 million private-sector jobs is a serious challenge for the American economy. Middle-class families are also increasingly being squeezed by the rising costs of health care, college tuition, and gasoline at the same time that wages and incomes are stagnating and personal bankruptcies are at a record high.

This one sounded way more plausible to voters—46 percent gave it a five and another 19 percent a four.

4. The war wasn’t really worth it. The number who believe removing Saddam from power was worth the number of U.S. casualties and the financial costs of the war is down to 40 percent, the lowest ever in this poll, with a majority (51 percent) saying it wasn’t worth it.

5. The war hasn’t made us safer. A majority (51 percent) thinks the threat of terrorism against the United States has been increased by the Iraq war, compared to only 14 percent who think it has decreased.

6. Bush lied or at least exaggerated. A majority (53 percent) now say that Bush “exaggerated information to make the case for war” rather than provided the most accurate information (42 percent). Three months ago, this question returned a 49 percent/49 percent split. Also, for the first time, a plurality (47 percent) say that Bush “deliberately misled people to make the case for war” rather than gave the most accurate information (44 percent). That’s a reversal from three months ago when, by 53 percent to 41 percent, people said Bush did not deliberately mislead people.

7. Let’s try to get out of here, shall we? By 53 percent to 37 percent, the public worries more that we will stay in Iraq too long than that we will leave too soon. A majority (55 percent) either want to leave as soon as possible (24 percent) or according to a specified timetable but within eighteen months “regardless of the situation at the time” (31 percent). And 74 percent say that, if Iraqi civilian leaders can’t govern effectively, the United States should not take back control but rather let the Iraqis work things out for themselves.

Now it’s up to John Kerry to make the case that he’d do better.

If This Election Is a Referendum on the Incumbent, Bush Is in Serious Trouble

CBS News/New York Times poll of 1,053 adults, released June 29 (conducted June 23–27)

Lydia Saad, “Americans Applaud Transfer of Sovereignty to Iraq,” Gallup Organization, June 29

It would be easy to miss, or not understand fully, how negative the new CBS News/New York Times poll is, coming as it does, on the heels of a number of other strongly negative polls. Also, the horse race result (Bush down by a single point) is indeed better for the president than the same poll’s result last month (a Bush deficit of 8 points). But Bush, while behind by less, is still behind and is registering only 44 percent support, a catastrophic level for an incumbent seeking reelection.

As Frank Newport of Gallup recently put it, “None of the five presidents who won re-election [since 1956] were behind their eventual opponent in any trial heats after January in the year prior to their election.” So, 1-point deficit or 8-point deficit, Bush is still following a losing pattern. And, as Newport also put it, “Based on historical patterns, Bush’s [under 50 percent] job approval rating is thus underperforming the pattern of presidents who have won re-election.”

Check again on the losing pattern. Bush’s approval rating in this poll is a miserable 41 percent, with 51 percent disapproval. And his approval rating among independents is a breathtakingly bad 34 percent.

Moreover, Bush’s approval rating on the economy, despite some increase in economic optimism registered by the poll, remains mired at 40 percent approval/52 percent disapproval. And on the economy independents give him the same abysmal 34 percent that they give him overall.

But that’s better than Bush fares on Iraq, where he receives only a 36 percent/58 percent rating, with independents downgrading him further to 29 percent/62 percent. He does little better on foreign policy in general, receiving a 39 percent rating from the public as a whole and a 32 percent rating from independents.

Only on the campaign against terrorism does he get an approval rating over 50 percent (52 percent) and, even here, independents still give him a sub-50 percent rating (48 percent).

And here’s more trouble: wrong track (57 percent) is 21 points higher than right direction (36 percent) and is more than 2 to 1 among independents (62 percent to 28 percent).

Yup, if it’s a referendum on the incumbent—and to a large extent it is—these are terrible numbers to have if you’re an incumbent—especially as we shade into July of an election year. And especially if you’re saddled with the situation in Iraq.

As I mentioned above, Bush’s approval rating on Iraq among independents is now a sizzling 29 percent.

Here’s some more data from the poll that show how extremely unhappy the public (especially independent voters) is with the Iraq situation. I was particularly struck by this finding: the public, by more than three to one, thinks that U.S. involvement in Iraq is creating more terrorists who are planning to attack the United States (55 percent), rather than less (17 percent). Wow. More potential airline highjackers, bioterrorists, and what have you, rather than less. That’s really an amazing finding and shows how far the administration’s strategy for the war on terror has sunk in public esteem.

Similarly, by about 4 to 1, the public thinks that U.S. military action against Iraq has increased (47 percent) rather than decreased (13 percent) the threat of terrorism against the United States. Looked at another way, 85 percent think that the Iraq war has either made no difference or increased the threat of terrorism.

Moreover, by about 2 to 1 (60 percent to 32 percent), the public believes that the result of the war with Iraq has not been worth the associated loss of American life and other costs (that result skies to 65 percent to 28 percent among independents). And we’re edging toward a majority saying that we should have stayed out to begin with (and we’re already there among independents).

But will the handover of sovereignty to the Iraqis get views on Iraq headed north again? I doubt it, unless the situation on the ground in Iraq improves dramatically, which seems highly unlikely. And keep in mind how the public is viewing this handover: they’re for it, but they regard it as a sign of failure, not success, for Bush’s policy. A just-released Gallup poll finds 60 percent saying that the handover, given that stability has not yet been established, does indicate that U.S. policy is failing, compared to 32 percent who think that the handover means success (and it’s 66 percent to 25 percent among independents).

Note also that 70 percent now think significant numbers of U.S. troops should remain in Iraq for only two years or less, but just 36 percent believe such a deadline will be met. Food for thought for John Kerry, who, so far, has not been able to open up a significant lead over Bush—despite his horrific numbers—on who can best deal with the Iraq situation.

Swing Voters, Religious Voters, Catholic Voters

Pew Research Center, “Swing Vote Smaller than Usual, But Still Sizable,” June 24

Despite all of the talk about base mobilization, it is still likely that swing voters will decide the outcome in November. And, make no mistake about it, despite some apparent shrinkage in the swing voter pool, there are plenty of these voters around. According to a recently released report by the Pew Research Center, about one-fifth of voters can be classified as swing at this stage of the campaign—sizable, though still down 6 to 11 points from the proportions of swing voters at analogous points in the 1992, 1996, and 2000 campaigns.

In the Pew data, swing voters who currently express a preference are about equally divided between Bush and Kerry. However, their approval ratings for Bush on the economy (36 percent) and Iraq (34 percent) are notably low. In addition, swing voters in their June data are heavily moderate (49 percent) and independent/no party preference (45 percent) or Democratic (36 percent). Thus, John Kerry appears to be well-positioned to make headway among these voters over time.

The Pew report also contains a number of other interesting findings. They pooled their data from April to June to get enough respondents to look at Bush approval ratings in some key battleground states. Generally, the rank order of approval rating follows from the 2000 results: Bush approval is higher in states he carried in 2000; lower in states he did not. But there is one important exception: among the nine states they provide data for, Ohio is ranked dead-last in Bush approval, with just 41 percent approval and 46 percent disapproval..

Another intriguing finding is an apparent narrowing of the “religiosity gap”—that is, the tendency for those who attend church more often to vote Republican with far greater frequency than those who attend less often. According to the Pew data, the gap in Bush support between those who say they attend church every week and those who attend seldom or never is now 14 points, compared to 27 points in the 2000 VNS exit poll.

Who knows if this will hold up in this year’s election, but it’s food for thought. After all, we have not always had the relationship observed in 2000 between church attendance and support for Republican candidates. For example, in the 1980s, there appears to have been only a weak relationship between church attendance and Republican support. But that relationship became quite noticeable in 1992, strengthened in 1996 and strengthened some more in 2000.

Who is to say that relationship might not start heading in the opposite direction? Despite Bush’s best efforts, he has had little success inflaming the culture wars and we are now four years past the sex scandals that dogged the last years of the Clinton–Gore administration. Keep an eye on this one as we head toward November.

And here’s another interesting finding, this time about Catholic voters. According to Pew data pooled from May and June, Kerry is leading Bush by a point among white Catholics. That may not sound like much, but in 2000 Gore lost white Catholics by 7 points.

Also in 2000, Gore carried all Catholic voters by three points, even as he was losing white Catholics by that 7-point margin. That suggests that a 1-point margin among white Catholics implies a substantially larger margin among Catholics as a whole.

And, in fact, a recent Gallup report, based on Gallup’s late May and early June polls, does indicate that Kerry is running a solid lead among all Catholics. According to that report, Kerry leads Bush among Catholic registered voters, 50 percent to 42 percent. And note that Kerry has gained much ground since January, when Bush was carrying Catholics 56 percent to 42 percent.

So what happened to Karl Rove’s plan to tilt Catholics in Bush’s direction by emphasizing Bush’s conservatism on social issues such abortion and gay marriage? Well, it was always a suspect plan, given that Catholics as a whole hardly differ from the rest of the population in their views on issues such as abortion. And, in general, there is little evidence that centrist and modernist Catholics—which are the overwhelming majority of Catholics, including among Hispanics—are likely to vote the conservative social positions of the Catholic church on issues such as abortion or gay marriage. That was the assumption underlying Rove’s plan, but it is highly unlikely to happen. Instead, polling data suggest strongly that these Catholics are far more concerned and moved electorally by other issues, such as the economy, Iraq, health care, education, and so on.

Perhaps this is another one of Karl Rove’s plans that doesn’t turn out to be nearly as clever and well thought out as it initially appeared.

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