Public Opinion Watch

Ruy Teixeira
Ruy Teixeira

(covering polls and related articles from the week of July 19–25)

In this edition of Public Opinion Watch:

• New Polls of Hispanics Indicate Failure of GOP’s Hispanic Strategy
• The Political Landscape on the Eve of the Democratic Convention
• The White Working Class and the 2004 Election

New Polls of Hispanics Indicate Failure of GOP’s Hispanic Strategy

Washington Post/Univision/Tomas Rivera Policy Institute poll of 1,605 Hispanic registered voters in the 11 states with the highest concentrations of Hispanics, released on July 22 (conducted July 6–16)

Pew Hispanic Center/Kaiser Family Foundation poll of 2,288 Hispanic adults, released July 22 (conducted April 21–June 9)

Last Thursday saw the release of not one, but two, major new polls of Hispanics—one from the Washington Post/Univision/Tomas Rivera Policy Institute and the other from the Pew Hispanic Center. For Matthew Dowd, leading Bush/Cheney campaign strategist, who has famously remarked that “As a realistic goal, we have to get somewhere between… 38 [percent] to 40 percent of the Hispanic vote” in 2004 for the GOP to be successful, these polls are very bad news indeed.

Start with the presidential trial heat results. Both polls give Kerry/Edwards a 30-point lead over Bush–Cheney among Hispanic registered voters (RVs). The Washington Post poll (which was conducted in the 11 states with the highest concentrations of Hispanics) has Kerry/Edwards over Bush/Cheney by 60 percent to 30 percent, even with Nader/Camejo included. The Pew Hispanic Center (PHC) poll, which was conducted nationally, has Kerry/Edwards over Bush/Cheney by a very similar 62 percent to 32 percent.

Note that this 30-point lead is a wider margin than Al Gore had among Hispanics in 2000, when he carried them by 27 points (62 percent to 35 percent), according to the 2000 Voter News Service (VNS) exit poll. And also note that the Bush/Cheney figures of 30 percent to 32 percent aren’t anywhere near the 38 percent to 40 percent percent target set by Dowd. And they’re not likely to get much nearer since one would expect Hispanic undecideds to break toward the Democratic challenger, not the Republican incumbent.

These results are significantly worse for Bush than earlier polls of Hispanics this year by the Democracy Corps and others, which generally found Bush behind by margins in the low 20s. So Hispanic voters, it would appear, are trending against the Republicans.

Dowd, who has become notorious for scorched-earth criticism of polls with favorable results for the Democrats, refuses to accept this evidence, offering as a counter that a few small Hispanic subsamples in conventional national polls have showed Bush’s support among Hispanics in the 40 percent range. But this is very poor counter-evidence. These subsamples of Hispanic voters are not only ridiculously small (perhaps 50 voters or so), but they also suffer from the well-known problem that standard telephone polls make no special efforts (use of the Spanish language, and so on) to secure Hispanics’ participation and hence tend to draw more upscale, conservative samples of Hispanics than the specialized efforts discussed here.

Looking at the view of Hispanics, as captured in these polls, it’s not hard to see how Kerry/Edwards could have such a commanding lead at this point. In the Post poll, Bush’s overall approval rating among Hispanics is 36 percent, with 54 percent disapproval. On the economy—by far Hispanics’ top voting issue—Bush’s approval rating is worse, a dismal 32 percent approval/60 percent disapproval. And his rating on Iraq is worse still, 29 percent/62 percent. In addition, his rating on immigration is 27 percent/55 percent and his rating on education is 40 percent/46 percent. Only on the U.S. campaign against terrorism (54 percent/38 percent) does he have a net positive rating.

But even on this issue, where Bush gets his best approval rating, Hispanics still say they prefer Kerry over Bush by 43 percent to 35 percent. And they prefer Kerry over Bush on every other issue as well: the economy (53 percent to 28 percent); Iraq (45 percent to 34 percent); immigration (46 percent to 26 percent); and education (51 percent to 27 percent). Kerry is also viewed, by 25 points (55 percent to 30 percent), as the candidate who would do a better job coping with the main problems the nation faces over the next few years.

In addition, Hispanics give Kerry higher ratings than Bush on “understands the problems of people like you” (Kerry, 53 percent yes/23 percent no versus Bush, 37 percent yes/55 percent no); “can be trusted in a crisis” (53 percent/21 percent versus 47 percent/44 percent); and “is a likable person” (69 percent/14 percent versus 61 percent/34 percent). And even on “is a strong leader,” where Kerry and Bush get about the same number of yes votes, Kerry’s net rating is quite a bit higher than Bush’s (57 percent/22 percent versus 58 percent/36 percent).

On Iraq, contrary to early media reports that Hispanics were especially supportive of the war, the reverse is clearly now true. Hispanics believe that the United States is losing the war on terrorism (40 percent to 37 percent) and that the war hasn’t contributed to the long-term security of the United States (48 percent to 44 percent), while the general public still has modest pluralities in the other direction. And Hispanics overwhelmingly believe (63 percent to 21 percent) that, considering the costs and benefits to the United States, the war with Iraq wasn’t worth fighting (the general public is only split 53 percent to 45 percent that the war wasn’t worth fighting).

Finally, Hispanics in the Post poll give the Democrats a 36-point advantage as the party that has more concern for the Latino community (50 percent to 14 percent) and a huge 41-point lead on party identification (66 percent to 23 percent).

The results of the Pew Hispanic Center poll are generally consistent with the Post poll, though they give the Democrats a smaller (26-point) lead on party identification. The similar trial heat results have already been discussed and Bush’s overall approval rating in the Pew poll (35 percent/55 percent) is similar to that in the Post poll, as is his rating on Iraq (32 percent/58 percent). The Pew poll also finds that Latinos believe the Bush administration deliberately misled the American public about how big a threat Iraq was to the United States (51 percent/35 percent) and the United States made the wrong decision, not the right decision, in using military force against Iraq (48 percent/39 percent).

On the Bush tax cuts, the Pew poll finds that only 17 percent believe that they have been good for the economy. On health care, 86 percent believe that the government should provide health insurance for those who don’t have it and, by 59 percent to 32 percent, they’d be willing to pay more—either in higher health insurance premiums or taxes—to increase the number of Americans who have health insurance. In fact, Latinos say, by 55 percent to 37 percent, that they’d be willing to pay higher taxes to support a generally larger government that provides more services, rather than pay lower taxes and have a smaller government with fewer services.

It therefore appears that Matthew Dowd’s hopes for Hispanic voters may be seriously misplaced. These voters just don’t seem like the kind for whom the GOP anti-government, pro-war program holds much appeal. In fact—based on these data—perhaps Dowd should take that 30 percent support that Bush is getting right now and be happy he’s getting that much.

The Political Landscape on the Eve of the Democratic Convention

SDS Prime poll of 390 college undergraduates for Harvard University Institute of Politics, released July 20 (conducted July 9–15)

Princeton Survey Research poll of 2,009 adults for Pew Research Center, released July 21 (conducted July 8–18)

BET/CBS News poll of 868 black registered voters, released July 21 (conducted July 6–15)

Gallup poll of 1,005 adults for CNN/USA Today, released July 22 (conducted July 19–21)

A slew of interesting polls have recently been released which, considered together, give us a sense of how the political landscape lies on the eve of the Democratic convention. Based on both the national picture and on the leanings of key constituencies, the Democrats appear to be in excellent shape, even if much work remains to be done in converting the Democrats’ many advantages into a large, durable lead for John Kerry.

Start with the new Pew Research Center poll. Perhaps the most striking findings in the poll concern the dramatically improved issue advantages and image of the Democratic party. Here are the Democrats’ leads on which party can a better job on a range of issues: dealing with the economy (+27, up from +7 in mid-2003); protecting the environment (+27); improving the educational system (+16, up from –3 in early 2002); dealing with the economy (+12, up from +3 in fall, 2002); making wise decisions about Iraq (+2, up from -9 in fall, 2002); making wise decisions about foreign policy (+2, up from –10 in fall, 2002); reflecting your views on gun control (+2); improving morality in this country (–2, up from –11 in early 2002 and –23 in early 2001!); coming closest to your views on homosexuality (–2); and dealing with the terrorist threat at home (–15).

Of just as much significance are the results on party image. Five of the six image questions were on positive attributes and the Democrats lead on each one of them: “is concerned with the disadvantaged” (57 percent/23 percent); “is concerned with people like me” (50 percent/30 percent); “can bring about needed changes” (46 percent/35 percent); “is able to manage the federal government well” (40 percent/37 percent, the first lead Democrats have had on this attribute since mid-1992); and “governs in an honest and ethical way” (37 percent/34 percent). Only on “is concerned with business and powerful groups” do the Republicans have an advantage—and a wide one (61 percent/22 percent).

In terms of approval ratings, Bush fares poorly in this poll. His overall approval rating is 46 percent approval/46 percent disapproval, slightly down from their June poll. Slightly down as well in the last month is his rating on the economy, now at 42 percent/52 percent, more evidence that Bush’s happy talk on job creation and the allegedly robust economy is convincing no one. His rating on Iraq is a nearly identical 42 percent/53 percent, a slight increase in disapproval over last month. And his rating on “the nation’s foreign policy” is actually a bit lower at 40 percent/48 percent (as recently as January of this year, his rating in this area was a comparatively strong 53 percent/36 percent). Only on terrorist threats does his job rating break into net postive territory (54 percent/40 percent) but this rating too is down from last month and way down from the end of last year.

Pew’s trial heat question (which includes Nader/Camejo) gives Kerry/Edwards a small, two-point lead (46 percent to 44 percent) over Bush/Cheney among RVs. That includes a 12-point lead for Kerry/Edwards among independents and a six-point lead in the battleground states.

The Pew data also show that voter interest is running high in this election—significantly above interest levels in 2000 and 1996 and comparable with 1992—suggesting that this will be a relatively high turnout election. And their data indicate that voters are now split on who is going to win the 2004 election, whereas before, regardless of who they personally supported, voters believed by wide margins (40 points in January, by 19 points in May, and by 15 points in June) that Bush would prevail.

The wind is shifting and voters seem to know it.

The new Gallup poll gives Kerry/Edwards a slightly larger lead (4 points) over Bush/Cheney among RVs, with or without Nader–Camejo in the mix. Internals of the horse race question show Kerry/Edwards with a whopping 21-point lead among independents. And, just as in Gallup’s last poll, Democrats are now supporting their ticket even more strongly (91 percent/8 percent) than the Republicans are supporting theirs (87 percent/8 percent).

Kerry/Edwards also have a wide, 23-point lead in the solid blue states (59 percent to 36 percent) and continue to lead in the purple, up-for-grabs states, though by a smaller margin (48 percent to 44 percent) than in Gallup’s last poll.

In addition, the Kerry/Edwards ticket continues to enjoy a substantial advantage in favorability ratings over the Bush/Cheney ticket, though slightly diminished from Gallup’s last poll. Kerry’s favorability rating is 55 percent favorable/37 percent unfavorable (a +18 net rating), while Bush’s is 52 percent/46 percent (+6). Similarly, Edwards’ favorability rating is 52 percent/26 percent (+26), while Cheney’s is 47 percent/43 percent (+4).

Gallup also asked a series of questions about Kerry versus Bush on the issues and on personal attributes. It’s interesting to match them up, where you can, with the Pew results comparing the Democratic and Republicans parties. By and large, Kerry’s advantages on issues and attributes tend to run about 4 to 10 points behind the Democrats’ advantage on similar issues and atributes. Clearly there’s room for improvement there for Kerry.

And speaking of room for improvement, Kerry has much work to to in making the case for his Iraq strategy. At this point, just 45 percent believe that Bush has a clear plan for handling the situation in Iraq, compared to 54 percent who think that he does not—a net –9 on the question, which certainly gives Kerry an opening to make his case. But check out the result of the same question for Kerry: 33 percent think he does have a clear plan, compared to 56 percent who think he does not—a net –23 on the question, significantly worse than Bush’s rating.

Turning to key groups for the Democrats in the upcoming election, Democrats, as noted above, seem to be doing very well indeed among Hispanic voters. And Democrats also appear to be doing very well among black voters and college students. Starting with black voters, a new poll by BET/CBS News suggests that Democrats will replicate their traditional strong performance among these voters in this election.

The trial heat question in this poll gives Bush only 10 percent support among black voters, compared to 79 percent for Kerry. That 10 percent support is the average GOP presidential support in the last three elections and is unlikely to grow much, if at all, before election day since, based on historical patterns, pretty much all the undecided voters in this group should be allocated to the Democratic candidate.

And you can see why given the incredibly negative views of black voters on Bush and his administration. They give Bush an 11 percent approval rating, with 85 percent disapproval (!) Only 6 percent of blacks think that the country is going in the right direction, compared to 92 percent who feel that things are off on the wrong track. Just 9 percent think that Bush has the same priorities for the country as they do, while 84 percent think that he doesn’t. And, by 90 percent to 8 percent, black voters don’t think the result of the war with Iraq was worth the associated loss of life and other costs.

That 10 percent could very well be the ceiling on Bush’s support among black voters.

The new Harvard University/Institute of Politics poll of college students shows Bush in deep trouble among this group as well. Since March, Kerry’s already-wide lead over Bush among students has increased by eight points, from 53 percent/40 percent to 58 percent/37 percent. Bush’s approval rating among this group has sunk to 40 percent, while support for the United States having gone to war in Iraq has fallen to 42 percent, with 56 percent opposition. And, at this point, by 50 percent to 31 percent, college students feel that the Kerry campaign is talking about issues that young people care about, while, by 61 percent to 26 percent, they feel that the Bush campaign is not.

Sounds like a tough sell for the GOP, and a relatively easy one for the Democrats, among the nation’s college students.

The White Working Class and the 2004 Election

John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira, “White Flight: Bush Loses His Base,” New Republic, July 23

As we head into the fall campaign, Kerry and the Democrats seem to doing very well indeed well among their key constituencies (see above). That reality is widely appreciated and is one of the reasons why Kerry is given such a good chance of knocking off Bush this November.

But there is another development that could truly doom Bush this November and is much less widely appreciated: his support among white working class voters, who were the bulwark of the Reagan coalition and drove the Republican victories in 2000 and 2002, has eroded quite dramatically due to the continued underperformance of the economy and, especially, disaffection with the Iraq war.

The White Working Class and the Reagan Coalition

It all goes back to the Nixon victories in the elections of 1968 and 1972. The average white working class vote for the Democrats in 1960–64 was 55 percent; the average vote for the Democrats in 1968–72 was 35 percent. That’s a drop of 20 points. The Republicans suddenly became the party of the white working class.

With the sharp economic recession and Nixon scandals of 1973–74, the Democrats were able to develop enough political momentum to retake the White House in 1976, with Jimmy Carter’s narrow defeat of Gerald Ford. But their political revival did not last long.

Not only did the Carter administration fail to do much to defuse white working class hostility to the new social movements, especially the black liberation movement, but economic events—the stagflation of the late 1970s—conspired to make that hostility even sharper. Though stagflation (combined inflation and unemployment with slow economic growth) first appeared during the 1973–75 recession, it persisted during the Carter administration and was peaking on the eve of the 1980 election. As the economy slid once more into recession, the inflation rate in that year was 12.5 percent. Combined with an unemployment rate of 7.1 percent, it produced a “misery index” of nearly 20 percent.

The stagflation fed resentments about race—about high taxes for welfare (which were assumed to go primarily to minorities) and about affirmative action. But it also sowed doubts about Democrats’ ability to manage the economy and made Republican and business explanations of stagflation—blaming it on government regulation, high taxes and spending—more plausible. In 1978, the white backlash and doubts about Democratic economic policies had helped to fuel a nationwide tax revolt. In 1980, these factors reproduced the massive exodus of white working class voters from the Democratic tickets first seen in 1968 and 1972. In the 1980 and 1984 elections, Reagan averaged 61 percent support among the white working class, compared to an average of 35 percent support for his Democratic opponents, Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale.

The White Working Class and the Clinton Years

Cracking the GOP’s hold on the white working class was key to the Clinton election victories of 1992 and 1996. Instead of losing the white working class by the gaudy margins of the Reagan years, he actually carried white working class voters in both elections—albeit very narrowly, by a single point in each case (39 percent to 38 percent in 1992 and 44 percent to 43 percent in 1996).

In both elections, Clinton carried white working class voters with the most modest educational credentials (high school dropouts) easily (by 17 points and 20 points, respectively). And he even carried white voters with a high school diploma, but no college, in both elections (by 1 point and 4 points, respectively).

But in neither election could he carry the elite of the white working class, those with an associates degree or some college. In 1992 he lost them by 4 points and in 1996 actually lost them by a slightly larger margin (5 points).

It’s also worth noting that in 1994, when the Democrats lost the House and white working class voters deserted them in droves, that they sustained their greatest losses, and received their lowest support, among whites with some college.

The White Working Class and the 2000 Election

In 2000, the Democrats went backwards several steps in terms of white working class support and that was the key to Bush “victory” such as it was. Without far outperforming Dole in terms of white working class support, Bush wouldn’t have had a chance.

Gore lost white working class voters as a whole by seventeen points, and he did worst of all among whites with some college, losing them by 20 points, including an astonishing 32-point deficit among white men with some college (32 percent to 64 percent).

The White Working Class and the 2002 Election

And in the 2002 election, the Democrats sank still further in terms of white working class support, losing these voters as a whole by 18 points and, once again, doing worst among whites with some college, losing them by 24 points (38 percent to 62 percent).

The White Working Class and the 2004 Election

As these data make clear, the Republicans are thoroughly dependent on carrying white working class voters by large margins, especially the white working class elite, those with some college. Therefore, if they cannot at least replicate their levels of support from 2000, they have little chance of winning.

And therein lies the problem. Data from this election cycle suggest that working class whites, particularly those with some college—the bulwark of GOP white working class support—are not giving Bush the margins he received in 2000 due to factors such as the sluggish economy, rising health care costs, and, above all, disenchantment with the war in Iraq.

Consider this analysis, taken from my new article with John Judis, “White Flight: Bush Loses His Base” in the latest New Republic.

“In June 2003, according to Gallup, 65 percent of white, working-class voters thought it was “worth going to war” in Iraq, while only 33 percent disagreed. By late May 2004, only 52 percent thought the war was worth fighting, and 46 percent thought it was not. The change among workers with some college was even more dramatic. They went from 70 to 30 percent in favor of the war to only 52 to 46 percent, a 34-point swing.

Other groups, including senior citizens, minorities, young voters, and voters with postgraduate education, have also become disillusioned with the war, but they were not as supportive to begin with. White, working-class voters were the bastion of pro-war sentiment. And, unlike minority voters or postgrads, they were also thoroughly supportive of Bush’s presidency. So, while the war probably hasn’t reduced Bush’s already slim support among minority voters, it is undermining his support among the white working class, perhaps his most crucial voting bloc.

…..In late May and early June [for example], Gallup polls showed white, working-class voters, who had favored Bush over Gore by 17 percent in 2000, favoring him over Kerry by an average of only 50 to 42 percent. Moreover, Bush led among workers with some college by only 49 to 44 percent—a difference of 15 points from the 2000 election. Since these are national figures and since white workers in battleground states are substantially more Democratic than white workers elsewhere, one has to assume Bush’s margins are even smaller—and perhaps nonexistent—in West Virginia and other Midwestern battlegrounds.”

How significant is this? Very:

“White, working-class voters make up the bulk of voters in many battleground states. In West Virginia, for example, they comprise 74 percent of the electorate; in Missouri, 64 percent; in Ohio and Pennsylvania, just over 60 percent. If Bush wins white, working-class voters in the battleground states by more than 10 points, he should carry most of them. But, if his advantage falls below this margin, he will be in trouble. And that’s what seems to be happening.”

Indeed, if Bush can’t do better—much better—than he’s currently doing among white working class voters in swing states, it is safe to say that his reelection effort is doomed. But if these voters have deserted Bush, above all, because of the Iraq war, than pumping up his support among these voters would seem to depend on convincing them that war with Iraq is going much better and accomplishing much more than it appears to be doing. Given the disillusion that has set in, and the realities on the ground in Iraq, that may be very difficult to do.

In 2002, the GOP benefitted greatly from pro-Bush sentiment among these voters generated by their perception that he was a warrior—and a successful one—against America’s enemies. In 2004, the perception that he is a less successful warrior and after the wrong enemies appears to be dragging him down considerably among these very same voters. You live by the sword, you die by the sword.

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