Public Opinion Watch

Ruy Teixeira
Ruy Teixeira

(covering polls and related articles from the week of July 12–18)

In this edition of Public Opinion Watch:

• Et Tu, CBS News/New York Times?
• Voters Want a Change in Direction
• Who Needs Swing Voters?
• Iraq War a Mistake, Public Says

Et Tu, CBS News/New York Times?

CBS News/New York Times poll of 955 adults, released July 17 (conducted July 11–15)

The latest CBS News/New York Times poll has a number of findings that are bad news for President Bush and reinforce the results of other recent public polls (see below). Here are the key findings:

  1. Bush’s favorable/unfavorable rating is net negative for their fifth survey in a row (going back to the beginning of April).
  2. Kerry/Edwards beats Bush/Cheney by 5 points (49 percent to 44 percent), including an 8-point lead among independent voters. Note that the 5-point lead is the identical result that CBS News obtained in their overnight poll after Kerry selected Edwards as his running mate, suggesting that the Edwards bounce has some staying power.
  3. Bush’s overall approval rating is net negative (45 percent approval/48 percent disapproval) for their fourth survey in a row, going back to late April. His 45 percent rating, while a slight improvement over his late May and late June ratings, keeps him well into the danger zone for incumbents.
  4. Right direction/wrong track is at 36 percent/56 percent, essentially unchanged since their last survey about three weeks ago.
  5. His approval rating on foreign policy is his worst ever at 39 percent/55 percent, as is his rating on handling the campaign against terrorism (51 percent/43 percent). (Note: this latter trend contradicts a recent Washington Post poll finding suggesting an improvement in Bush’s rating in this area—see below.) His approval rating on the economy is still going nowhere fast and, at 42 percent/51 percent, still has failed to reach the exalted heights of mid-February, when his economic rating reached 44 percent/50 percent. And his approval rating on Iraq is 37 percent/58 percent, practically a carbon copy of his dismal ratings in their late June and late May polls.
  6. The Democrats have a 9-point advantage in the generic congressional contest, consistent with the newly released Democracy Corps poll (see below).
  7. John Edwards has a net +22 in his favorability rating, while Dick Cheney is now at -9, his worst rating ever.
  8. For the first time, a majority (51 percent) says that we should have stayed out Iraq, rather than we did the right thing by taking military action (45 percent). And the highest number ever (62 percent) says that the result of the war with Iraq wasn’t worth the loss of life and other costs of attacking Iraq.
  9. With all the brouhaha in the Senate about the gay marriage constitutional amendment, the number who think that gays should be allowed to either marry or form civil unions continues to climb—from 55 percent in March, to 57 percent in May, to 59 percent in this latest survey.
  10. The highest number ever (60 percent) think that the United States should not attack another country unless the United States is attacked first.
  11. Democrats have an 8-point advantage in party identification without leaners and a 14-point advantage with leaners. Shades of the much-maligned Los Angeles Times poll. This party identification advantage, if it holds, gives the Democrats a built-in advantage on Election Day, which the Republicans then have to try to desperately counter by maximizing turnout of their base.

For the likelihood that this strategy will work, see below.

Voters Want a Change in Direction

Greenberg Quinlan Rosner poll of 1,010 likely voters for Democracy Corps, released July 16 (conducted July 10–13)
Stan Greenberg and James Carville, “Report on the Stable Framework Favoring John Kerry’s Election,” Democracy Corps, July 16

Democracy Corps has released their latest survey, along with an accompanying analysis memo, “Report on the Stable Framework Favoring John Kerry’s Election.” One of the features of the new survey is that they provide not one, not two, not three, but four different horse race results for your edification (all among likely voters):

Kerry/Edwards vs. Bush/Cheney (split sample): 52 percent to 45 percent
Kerry vs. Bush (split sample): 50 percent to 47 percent
Kerry vs. Bush (combining split samples): 51 percent to 46 percent
Kerry vs. Bush vs. Nader: 48 percent, 45 percent, and 4 percent

So pick whichever one suits your methodological fancy (though Kerry will be ahead no matter which one you pick).

The Democracy Corps survey also shows the Democrats up by 7 points (49 percent to 42 percent), in the generic congressional contest, another good sign for the Democrats.

The poll, in fact, is full of good signs “favoring John Kerry’s election,” as they put it in the title of their analysis memo.

For example, the poll has right direction/wrong track at 41 percent/54 percent and has Democracy Corps’ related question, “Do you think the country should continue in the direction Bush is headed or go in a significantly different direction?” at 43 percent choosing Bush’s direction and 54 percent selecting a significantly different direction.

Moreover, when this question is applied to nine different specific issue areas, voters only want to continue in Bush’s direction on one area, the war on terrorism (54 percent/43 percent), but even here, Bush’s net of +11 is sharply down from a net of +33 in January. In all other areas, Bush is net negative on which direction the country should go in: prescription drug coverage for seniors (–27); jobs in America (–12); middle class living standards (–11); education (–11); foreign policy (–10); Iraq (–10); the economy (–8); and taxes (–6).

The poll also asked about whether voters preferred Kerry or Bush on handling a wide variety of issues. Bush has a lead on the war on terrorism (11 points) and on Iraq (4 points) and is tied on foreign policy. On all other issues, however, ranging from the economy, education and taxes to jobs, middle class living standards an energy policy, Kerry is ahead by from three to eleven points.

Consistent with other recent polls, the survey finds negative sentiment about Iraq continuing to worsen. By 15 points (56 percent/41 percent), voters now say the war in Iraq was not worth the cost of U.S. lives and dollars. And, by a 52 percent/45 percent margin, voters now believe that the Iraq war has made us less, not more, secure.

On the economy, it’s worth quoting the Democracy Corps analysis memo at length:

“In the great majority of areas, people are worried more, not less—particularly about health care costs, which jumped 8 points this month alone (to 54 percent very worried). While worry about gas prices has fallen off a little, the dominant pattern is growing worries about health care costs and employers cutting back benefits, particularly for health care.

“Not surprisingly, Democrats continue to win the essential economic debate between a middle class squeezed and the evidence of economic progress. By 59 to 38 percent, voters believe that the middle class faces stagnant incomes, scarce jobs, cuts in benefits as health care costs are rising; not as the economists say, that the economy is showing signs of success, with increased employment, high home ownership, stock values and the like. That outcome of that debate remains largely unchanged, with the slightest of narrowing. Giving stability to this structure are the 51 percent who ‘strongly’ reject the economic progress argument, down only 2 points from June and 5 points from May. Still, a majority of the electorate, on the eve of the Democratic convention, strongly reject Bush’s core case for progress.”

I realize Democracy Corps’ analysis can seem a bit over-optimistic at times about the Democrats’ chances. But, on the other hand, as these and other data accumulate, the Democrats may be justified in adopting a measure of real optimism.

Who Needs Swing Voters?

Dana Milbank and Mike Allen, “Bush Fortifies Conservative Base: Campaign Seeks Solid Support Before Wooing Swing Voters,” Washington Post, July 15

The Washington Post had a front-page article this past Thursday, “Bush Fortifies Conservative Base: Campaign Seeks Solid Support Before Wooing Swing Voters.” According to the story—which is certainly consistent with the Bush campaign’s recent choice of rhetoric and audience—the campaign is concentrating single-mindedly on shoring up its conservative base and getting it revved up for the election. As for the swing voters and independents, well, they’re just hoping that the same hardline approach they’re taking to tax cuts and terrorism to reach GOP partisans will, as kind of an ancillary benefit, somehow also yield a reasonable number of swing voters.

It’s the Zen approach to reaching swing voters! You can’t hit the target if you’re aiming at it!

Or, as James Carville is quoted as saying in the article: “It’s a new way to run for president . . . usually you quietly shore up your base and aggressively court the swing voter, Bush is aggressively shoring up his base and quietly courting the swing voter.”

The former approach, of course, is what Kerry is pursuing—he’s taking advantage of the exceptionally united Democratic base to go out there and assiduously cultivate swing voters and independents. And the polling data suggest these voters are very open to the Kerry message and are leaning heavily in his direction (see, for example, editions of Public Opinion Watch from June 30 and June 9 and this recent memo by Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio on undecided voters in battleground states).

These well-known facts have led some GOP partisans to run up the white flag on swing voters, arguing that they are few in number anyway, and put their faith in high turnout of “their people.” The reliably hardline, but influential, Grover Norquist has this to say:

“How much time and energy do you give to picking up the 10 percent, who are disengaged from politics, and how do you communicate with them even if you want to? You can go to the 45 percent [who already support Bush] and ask them to bring a brother or a sister or a friend to the polls.”

Does any of this make any sense or is it properly viewed as an adjustment to political weakness (disunity in the conservative ranks and unfriendly swing voters) that is perhaps congealing into a foolish strategy (the heck with those swing voters, let’s call Aunt Mary and get her to the polls!). I believe it’s the latter.

Consider this analysis. The article asserts that Republicans have been supporting Bush at about the 90 percent level in this campaign. Averaging the last four Gallup polls, that’s about true. But it’s also true, averaging the last four Gallup polls, that Democratic support for Kerry has been running near that level and that the margins of support each candidate enjoys among their partisans are pretty close. Therefore, it appears unlikely that Bush will have as much of an advantage as he did in 2000 from a wider margin among Republicans than his opponent had among Democrats.

If that’s true, then Bush can’t win unless he erases the Democrats’ traditional turnout advantage in presidential election years (Democrats generally run 3 to 4 points higher as a proportion of voters), since that advantage won’t be offset much by the Republicans’ superior margin among their partisans. (That could be part of the reasoning behind their base mobilization strategy.)

But then there are those pesky independent voters! You can erase the Democrats’ turnout advantage—which I am, incidentally, quite skeptical they can do, based on recent party identification trends and apparent mobilization levels among Democrats and Democratic organizations—and still wind up losing handily because the independent voters break the tie against you.

And in the last four Gallup polls, independents are averaging a 14-point margin against Bush. To make up that deficit, Republicans would have to not only equalize their turnout with Democrats—against historical patterns—but actually beat the Democrats by about 4 points as a proportion of voters.

I don’t think this is remotely plausible. Such a scenario is only possible with high mobilization of Republicans that is not counterbalanced at all by mobilization of Democrats. That just isn’t going to happen this year (memo to Rove, Dowd, and, especially, Norquist: we’re not in 2002 any more); to think it might is a complete fantasy.

But I imagine the Kerry campaign hopes they keep believing it. That way, the Kerry/Edwards campaign can have the swing voters and independents all to themselves, which would presumably suit them fine.

Iraq War a Mistake, Public Says

Gallup poll of 1,005 adults for CNN/USA Today, released July 12 (conducted July 8–11)
TNS poll of 850 adults for Washington Post, released July 12 (conducted July 8–11)

Last Wednesday, Bush reiterated that the war with Iraq was the right call and said he’d happily do the same thing again.

The American public, on the other hand, has its doubts. In the latest Gallup poll, the public, by 54 percent to 45 percent, says that sending troops to Iraq was a mistake. And, by 50 percent to 47 percent, the public believes that it wasn’t worth going to war with Iraq.

The new Washington Post poll tells the same story: 53 percent now think that the war with Iraq wasn’t worth fighting, compared to 45 percent who that believe it was. That’s the Post poll’s most negative finding on this question.

These findings are big, big trouble for the Bush/Cheney campaign. They indicate that the transfer of power to the new Iraqi government isn’t fooling anyone. Voters believe—rightly—that the situation in Iraq isn’t getting much better, that we’re still militarily and financially responsible for keeping the situation under control, and that our initial involvement in Iraq was based on allegations and intelligence that have turned out to be mostly wrong.

No wonder Bush’s approval rating on Iraq isn’t going anywhere. In the Post poll, it has declined slightly over the past three weeks to 43 percent approval/55 percent disapproval (40 percent/57 percent among independents). And, over the same period, Kerry has moved into a tie with Bush (47 percent to 47 percent) over who could do a better job handling the Iraq situation, up from a 5-point deficit three weeks ago. (Note, though, in a bit of good news for Bush, his approval rating on handling the campaign against terrorism improved five points to 55 percent/43 percent and he reopened a 9-point advantage over Kerry on who would do the best job handling the anti-terrorism campaign.)

On the economy, the poll shows no gain for Bush—in fact, a small slide—in his economic approval rating. He’s down a couple of points in the past three weeks to 43 percent/51 percent and the poll—in contrast to some recent Gallup data—shows only 35 percent saying the nation’s economy is getting better, about the same number as were optimistic in their mid-April poll. And only a about a quarter of respondents (26 percent) say that their family financial situation is better than it was a year ago. In addition, Kerry has widened his lead over Bush on handling the economy to eight points from a five-point advantage three weeks ago.

The poll also shows some significant gains for Kerry on key personal characteristics. Since late April, Bush has remained rock steady at 42 percent yes/57 percent no on understanding “the problems of people like you.” Kerry in contrast has gone from 52 percent yes/43 percent no to 55 percent/38 percent.

On being “a strong leader,” Bush has declined several points, to 59 percent yes/40 percent no, while Kerry has move up from 52 percent/38 percent to 55 percent/35 percent. That actually gives Kerry a higher net rating (+20) than Bush (+19). Similarly, on “can be trusted in a crisis,” Bush has declined a bit to 57 percent/41 percent, while Kerry has climbed significantly to 53 percent/34 percent from 46 percent/42 percent. Again, this gives Kerry a higher net rating (+19) than Bush (+16).

And just to add insult to injury for the Bush campaign, Kerry is now deemed “likeable” by more of the public (72 percent) than Bush (68 percent)!

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