Public Opinion Watch

Ruy Teixeira
Ruy Teixeira

(covering polls and related articles from the weeks of December 20, 2004–January 2, 2005)

In this edition of Public Opinion Watch:

• Bush’s “Reagan Lite” Coalition
• Just How Sick Is the Public Getting of the Iraq Situation?
• Now That You Mention It, Perhaps These Private Accounts Aren’t Such a Good Idea after All

Bush’s “Reagan Lite” Coalition

In the latest American Prospect, John Judis and I consider the results of the 2004 election and assess whether and to what extent an “emerging Democratic majority” is still feasible in light of these results.

Here are some key excerpts where we stress the “Reagan lite” nature of Bush’s victory, but the entire article is now available online.

“There were certainly reasons to despair after the 2004 election—chiefly, the awful thought that George W. Bush and a Republican Congress could find the means to exceed the egregious irresponsibility, the xenophobia, the sheer partisan pettiness, and the callous disregard for life and law of Bush’s first term. But the election itself, and Bush’s margin of victory over Democrat John Kerry, were not reasons to despair. Bush won re-election by a smaller margin than Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, or Dwight Eisenhower—and against a deeply flawed Democratic opponent.

And there was little sign of a party realignment. In the great realigning elections of 1932 and ’36, and ’80 and ’84, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, respectively, created majorities by winning over new blocs of voters from their opponents. In the 2000 and 2004 elections, Bush and the Republicans had to patch together what remained of Reagan’s older coalition—without those states and voters that had earlier begun moving toward the Democrats. Bush’s victory in 2004 didn’t represent the onset of a new majority but the survival of an older one.

The Democrats surely showed weaknesses in the election, particularly in the Deep South and among white working-class voters, but they also displayed continuing strength among constituencies that will command a growing share of the electorate in years to come. These include minorities, single men and women, and college-educated voters. The Democrats also demonstrated surprising strength among younger voters—partly, to be sure, because of the Iraq War, but also because these voters are in tune with the cosmopolitan sensibility that the Democrats represent. And in this election, the Democrats benefited from a new Internet-based popular movement that could do for this era’s Democratic Party what the labor movement did for the old party and what the religious right has done for the Reagan Republicans.

In 1980, Reagan won a new majority that combined long-standing Republican support among upscale voters, farmers, and businesspeople with new levels of support from white working-class Democrats in the South and the North. He fused a traditional Republican attack on high taxes with militant anti-communism, opposition to racial preference, and support for a cultural conservatism rooted in church and family. With this appeal, Reagan not only carried the South and the Plains but, drawing on the suburban vote, states like California, Illinois, and New Jersey. In the ’90s, Republicans maintained their support in the South and the Plains, but the Democrats under Clinton won over a new generation of upscale suburbanites and city dwellers who lived in postindustrial metropolitan areas. By winning back a modest share of the white working class and maintaining Democratic support among minorities, Clinton obtained a plurality of votes in ’92 and ’96. He also turned California, Illinois, and New Jersey into Democratic enclaves. . . .

Bush failed to capture any of the northeastern or Pacific Coast states that Reagan had won easily in 1980 and ’84, and he failed to make dramatic gains nationally among the voting groups that had moved into the Democratic Party in the 1990s. Rather, the key to Bush’s victory was reviving Reagan’s support among the white working class. According to the post-election survey by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner for Democracy Corps/Institute for America’s Future, Bush enjoyed a whopping 24-percent edge among non–college-educated whites, compared with a 19-percent advantage in 2000. (Clinton had actually carried this group by a point in each of his election victories.) Insofar as whites still make up 77 percent of the electorate and non–college-educated whites represent a majority of the white vote, that increase alone accounts for most—perhaps 70 percent—of Bush’s improved performance in 2004. . . .

In the wake of the election, some commentators argued that Bush had dramatically altered the electoral map of the last two decades, but as the corrected exit polls and other post-election surveys have appeared, it has become clear that Bush’s successes were primarily tactical. . . .

Much was also made of Bush’s support in exurban and rural areas. The president did increase his support in these areas, but that is part of a trend that began in 1980. It did not decide the 2004 election. Only 13 percent of Bush’s gain in overall vote could be attributed to his increased support in the fringe or exurban counties of large metropolitan areas. And this support is unlikely to prove decisive in the future. Despite the fact that exurban areas have been growing fairly rapidly, they start from such a small base that their share of all voters has increased only modestly over the last 20 years, from 3 percent to 5 percent. Together with rural counties, which have been declining in population, these areas have stalled at 25 percent of the vote between 1984 and 2004. Exurbia and rural America don’t make for much of a political growth stock. They help make Republicans competitive, but they don’t give them a new and enduring majority. . . .

Barring [successful Republican exploitation of a new terrorist attack], the Republicans’ “Reagan-lite” coalition does not appear to have broad enough support to dominate American politics for the rest of the decade. That should open the door to the Democrats and their new coalition—especially if they can find a way to both mobilize their new center-left and nominate candidates with some comfort level among white working-class voters. The results of the 2004 election suggest that’s the right formula. If Democrats want to win and bring their majority into being by the end of the decade, they should adopt it.”

It is interesting to note that John Kenneth White of Catholic University makes many of the same points that Judis and I do in his very interesting paper on the election, “The Reagan Coalition Meets the Twenty-First Century.” (The paper was written for Zogby and is available on the subscription part of his website; if you can possibly arrange to access this document, I urge you to do so.)

Here are some relevant excerpts from the White paper:

“Despite George W. Bush’s win, the Reagan coalition is not nearly as potent as it once was. Contrast George W. Bush’s vote in 2004 with the support his father received sixteen years earlier. While the figures are similar, the power of the Reagan coalition translated Bush Sr.’s 53 percent of the popular vote into 426 electoral votes thanks to victories in 40 states. This year, Bush’s 51 percent garnered him just 286 electoral votes and 30 states. Bush’s puny electoral vote margin ranks among the smallest in history—close to his 271 votes in 2000, Woodrow Wilson’s 277 votes in 1916, and Jimmy Carter’s 297 votes in 1976. Unlike the comprehensive Reagan and George H. W. Bush victories, the 2004 contest came down to a single state: Ohio. If Ohio’s twenty electoral votes had switched from Bush to Kerry, then the Democrat would have become President-elect, and Republicans would be singing the post-election blues.

A principal reason the Reagan coalition is losing its clout is that the United States is experiencing profound demographic and societal transformations—changes that will only accelerate in the years ahead. . . .

Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s political guru, maintains that Bush’s tenure is reminiscent of William McKinley’s. McKinley, it should be recalled, sparked a Republican revival that broke a twenty year two-party deadlock that often resulted in minority presidents and disputed presidential outcomes (for example, 1876, 1884, 1888, and 1892). . . .

In reality, George W. Bush has not lived up to his McKinley-like potential. McKinley “natural harmonizing” skills created a broad coalition of Northern labor and industrial capital. But Bush’s has hardly been “a uniter” and his partisan base (both ideologically and in sheer geographic size) has shrunk. While the red states loom large following Bush’s victory, it is worth remembering that in four straight presidential elections Republicans have ceded the entire West coast (including Reagan’s native California) to the Democrats. Recall that Reagan won every state in the Far West twice. During the same period (1992–2004), Republicans lost every Northeastern state, except New Hampshire in 2000, which went to Bush only because third-party candidate Ralph Nader was a spoiler. Reagan, on the other hand, carried every Northeastern state twice, save Rhode Island.

Far from creating a renewed Reagan-like majority based on the transformational demography and economy of the 21st century, it seems clear that the base of the Reagan/Bush coalition has shrunk to the South and the interior heartland.”

Just How Sick Is the Public Getting of the Iraq Situation?

TNS poll of 1,004 adults for ABC News/Washington Post, released December 20, 2004 (conducted December 16–19, 2004)

One reason Bush won in November is that the public wasn’t quite sick enough yet of the Iraq war. If they had been sick enough of the mess in Iraq it wouldn’t have mattered that Kerry’s plan for Iraq wasn’t particularly clear or convincing. Enough voters would have gone for Kerry simply because they wanted a change—any change—from Bush’s course in Iraq.

Moving forward, however, it remains a distinct possibility that voters will get fed up enough with Iraq that the political damage will not be not containable. Consider these data from the latest ABC NewsWashington Post poll, as summarized by ABC News polling director, Gary Langer (note that these data were collected before the bombing of a U.S. military mess hall in Mosul):

“Fifty-six percent, a new high, now say the war in Iraq was not worth fighting, and fewer than half think the United States is making significant progress restoring civil order there. Most call Iraq unready for the election scheduled for late next month, doubt the integrity of the election process and lack confidence it’ll produce a stable government.

There are political implications: Fifty-seven percent disapprove of President Bush’s work on the situation, a point shy of his worst rating on Iraq, set during the Abu Ghraib scandal last spring. His approval for handling terrorism overall—his best issue—has dropped to 53 percent, near its low of 50 percent in June. . . .

Most broadly, this ABC News/Washington Post poll shows no second honeymoon for Bush after his re-election last month. The nation is as divided as ever, with Americans split, 48 percent to 49 percent, on his overall job performance—about where it’s been for most of 2004. Bush has 55 percent job approval in the “red” states he won—compared with 40 percent, 15 points lower, in the “blue” states won by Democrat John Kerry.

Comparisons to past year-end polls underscore the difficulties confronting Bush in his second term. His job approval rating is 11 points lower than a year ago, and 18 points lower than two years ago. His rating on terrorism is 17 points lower than at this time last year. There’s been a 17-point drop in the number of Americans who say the Iraq war was worth fighting, and a 10-point rise in the number who call U.S. casualties “unacceptable.””

That’s the situation now. And it seems only likely to get worse. Bush isn’t out of the woods yet on Iraq—not by a long shot.

Now That You Mention It, Perhaps These Private Accounts Aren’t Such a Good Idea after All

TNS poll of 1,004 adults for ABC News/Washington Post, released December 20, 2004 (conducted December 16–19, 2004)

I recently mentioned that support for private accounts tends to plunge precipitously when costs and trade-offs of these accounts are mentioned. The new ABC News/Washington Post poll provides more compelling evidence that this is the case and that, therefore, the level of “hard” support for Social Security privatization is quite low.

In the ABC/Washington Post poll, there is a slight majority (53 percent) in favor of “a plan in which people who chose to could invest some of their Social Security contributions in the stock market.” But when a followup is asked (“What if setting up a stock-market option for Social Security means the government has to borrow as much as two trillion dollars to set it up, with that money to be paid back over time through cost savings from the current system?”), that 53 percent is cut in half, so only 24 percent of the public winds up favoring private accounts if that kind of borrowing is necessary to set them up. That’s bad news for Bush, since it appears that the administration plans to advocate just that sort of borrowing to set up these accounts.

Yet more bad news for the administration is the public’s expressed interest in participating in such accounts if they were set up. Only 37 percent say they would personally put some of their Social Security money in such an account, given that they would “get higher Social Security benefits if the stock market went up, but lower Social Security benefits if the stock market went down.” Significantly, people who don’t expect to receive their full benefits from Social Security are no more likely to say they would participate in these accounts than are those who expect to receive full benefits. That undercuts one of the key selling points of the administration’s plan.

So the public doesn’t support private accounts, given the costs of setting up such accounts, and expresses little enthusiasm for participating in these accounts, even if they were available. If Bush is hoping for a groundswell of public opinion to push his privatization proposal over the top, he’d better think again.

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