Public Opinion Watch

Ruy Teixeira
Ruy Teixeira

(covering polls and related articles from the week of March 21–27, 2005)

In this edition of Public Opinion Watch:

• The Culture of Life or the Culture of Ideology?
• Americans Getting a Touch Impatient about the Economy
• Gallup, Pew Confirm Bush Decline

The Culture of Life or the Culture of Ideology?

The Bush administration, with its aggressive intervention into the Terri Schiavo case, appears to have bet that it can make political gains from linking the Schiavo case to a generalized case for a “culture of life.”

So far, this attempt has been a thunderous failure.

1. In a March 20 ABC News survey, 63 percent supported the decision to remove Schiavo’s feeding tube, while just 28 percent opposed it. Support for the decision cuts across partisan, ideological, and religious lines, showing that the public is remarkably undivided. Democrats supported the decision, 65–25 percent; independents, 63–28; Republicans, 61–34; moderates, 69–22; conservatives, 54–40; and conservative Republicans, 55–40. Catholics endorsed the decision, and even self-declared evangelicals narrowly favored it, 46–44 percent.

The public also solidly opposed federal intervention into the case by 60–35 percent, with the same broad support across political/philosophical and confessional lines. By 70–27 percent, the public thought it was inappropriate for Congress to get involved in this case.

2. In a March 18–20 Gallup poll, the public, by 56–31 percent, agreed that removing Schiavo’s feeding tube was the right thing to do, with the same pattern of broad support seen in the ABC News poll. For example, while Democrats said removing the tube was the right thing to do by 62–26 percent, independents agreed by 54–31 and even Republicans by 54–35. Hilariously, these exact data, which show a very small partisan spread, were displayed by CNN on its website in a classically deceptive way to imply a big partisan spread. This was done by using a truncated scale that went from a low of 53 to a high of 63. That truncated scale gave the Republicans and independents a bar height of just one and the Democrats a bar height of nine, which wound up towering above the Republicans and independents in the chart. Naughty, naughty, CNN!

Gallup also did a March 22 poll that found 52 percent of the public supported the federal judge’s decision not to reattach Schiavo’s feeding tube, compared to 39 percent who did not. The same poll found Bush’s handling of the Schiavo case met with only a 32 percent approval rating, while 52 percent disapproved.

3. In a March 21–22 CBS News poll, the public endorsed the decision to remove Schiavo’s feeding tube, 61–28 percent. And, by 66–27 percent, they said the feeding tube should not be reattached at this point.

As for intervention into the case, they indicated the following: by 82–13 percent, Congress and the president should stay out of the matter; by 75–22 percent, federal and state governments should generally stay out of life-support cases; and by 67–31 percent, the Supreme Court should not hear the Schiavo case. As a kicker, the public said that Congress’s intervention into the case was driven by a political agenda (74 percent) rather than real concern about what happens in the case.

How is all of this affecting Bush’s popularity? Well, it certainly does not seem to be helping. In this poll, Bush’s overall approval rating is just 43 percent, with 48 percent disapproval. In addition, his rating on Iraq is now only 39 percent approval/53 percent disapproval, and his rating on the economy is a stunningly bad 36/53, further evidence of growing public disenchantment with the economy.

Let us not forget Congress. In the wake of its handling of the Schiavo case, Congress’s approval rating has plunged to 34 percent against 49 percent disapproving.

In light of the results, is there any way not to read these data as a bad thing for the GOP? One way, of course, is to argue that all the pollsters’ questions are biased, an absurd contention disposed of handily by Mark Blumenthal over at Mystery Pollster (thanks, Mark!).

Another way (see Noam Scheiber) is to argue that, despite the unpopularity of Bush’s and the GOP’s stand, it serves to create a favorable contrast with the spineless, morally relativist Democrats.

Do not buy it. Sometimes bad politics is just bad politics. As Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center put it in his recent op-ed, “A Political Victory that Wasn’t,” in the New York Times:

“. . . Americans have a strong pragmatic streak. While most Americans may say they believe in creationism rather than evolution, on issues that directly affect their own lives, like health and protection of the quality of life, science wins.

Take note, for example, of the increasing support for stem-cell research. A nationwide Pew poll last August found respondents by a 52 percent to 34 percent margin saying it was more important to conduct stem-cell research that might result in new cures than to avoid destroying the potential life of embryos. Two years earlier, when this issue was first emerging, the public was more evenly divided, with 43 percent in favor and 38 percent against.

The August poll, taken during the presidential campaign, had another noteworthy lesson: the middle of the electorate, the swing voters, not only cared a lot about the stem-cell issue but also backed stem-cell research by nearly a two-to-one margin.”

Thus, far from being devilishly clever on this one, Republicans are really creating another issue like stem cell research for which the minority ideology of socially conservative forces within their party becomes counterposed to most Americans’ pragmatic interest in health research and autonomy over health decisions.

In short, this controversy identifies Republicans with a “culture of ideology” rather than with a culture of life. And that is a loser every time.

Americans Getting a Touch Impatient about the Economy

Above, I pointed out the new CBS News poll has Bush’s economic approval at just 36 percent. A fluke? Nope; it reflects the gathering economic pessimism of the U.S. public as month after month of the economic recovery (now well past three years old) fails to generate the robust growth people have been looking for. Instead, they are getting stagnant wages, persistent unemployment, signs of inflation, and high energy prices.

Reflecting this disquiet, in a mid-March ARG poll, 46 percent said the economy was getting worse, and just 27 percent said it was getting better. That compares to 39 percent better/30 percent worse in February. Looking forward, 38 percent said the economy will be worse in a year, while just 30 percent said it will be better. That is quite a bit more pessimistic than in February, when 38 percent thought the economy would be better in a year and only 25 percent said it would get worse.

Similarly, a recent Gallup report notes:

“Americans have become more pessimistic about the direction of the nation’s economy. In Gallup’s initial 2005 poll, 48% of Americans said the economy was getting better and 42% said worse. A more recent poll, conducted March 7-10, finds 41% say it is getting better and 50% say it is getting worse. That represents a net shift of 15 points, from a 6-point net positive assessment (48% better, 42% worse) to a 9-point net negative assessment (41% better, 50% worse).”

The report goes on to note some detailed demographics about this shift toward economic pessimism, including the fact that, of 30 groups analyzed, 27 show a shift toward economic pessimism. Even worse for the Bush administration, the biggest shifts tend to be among the very groups that provided Bush with his biggest margins last November: whites (a 20-point shift toward economic pessimism); residents of the South (30 points); rural dwellers (37 points); those with $30–75K in household income (20 points); and those with some college (25 points).

The economy’s “strong and getting stronger”? Not according to the voters Bush needs the most.

Gallup, Pew Confirm Bush Decline

In the two items above, I argued that Bush’s political support, already eroding because of his unpopular Social Security plan, is suffering additional and serious damage from his handling of the Schiavo case and from growing public disenchantment with the economy.

Abundant evidence for that view is provided by new polls from Gallup and the Pew Research Center. In the new Gallup poll, Bush’s approval rating is down to 45 percent—this in a poll that typically runs high relative to other public polls when it comes to gauging Bush’s popularity. The Gallup report on the poll points out:

“This is the lowest such rating Bush has received since taking office. . . .

In the last three Gallup surveys, conducted in late February and early March, Bush’s job approval rating was 52%. The timing of the seven-point drop suggests that the controversy over the Terri Schiavo case may be a major cause. New polls by ABC and CBS News show large majorities of Americans opposed to the intervention by Congress and the president in the Schiavo case, and Gallup’s Tuesday-night poll shows a majority of Americans disapprove of the way Bush has handled the Schiavo situation. Almost all recent polling has shown that Americans approve of the decision to remove Schiavo’s feeding tube.

But the CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey suggests that the public’s increasingly dismal views about the economy, and about the way things are going in general, could also be factors in Bush’s lower approval rating.”

The report goes on to detail those “dismal” views about the economy:

“Gallup’s economic measures also show a continual decline since the beginning of the year. Thirty-two percent of Americans rate current economic conditions as excellent or good, while 24% say poor. That eight-point positive margin is the smallest since Gallup found a two-point margin last May. At the beginning of this year, 41% rated the economy as excellent or good, while just 17% said poor—a 24-point positive margin. Earlier this month, the positive margin was 19 points, 35% to 16%.

Even more dramatic is the greater pessimism about the future of the nation’s economy. Fifty-nine percent of Americans say the economy is getting worse, just 33% say better—a 26-point negative margin. Earlier this month, the net negative rating was just nine points, with 50% saying the economy was getting worse, and 41% saying better. This is the worst rating on this measure in two years.”

One development clearly contributing to the economic malaise, as the report points out, is concern about rising gas prices, which have more than tripled over the last month.

The latest Pew Research Center poll also finds Bush’s approval rating at 45 percent. In addition, the poll finds support for the most basic part of Bush’s Social Security plan—private accounts funded by part of the Social Security tax—continuing to sink. A generic question about these accounts, one that does not mention Bush or any possible costs or trade-offs, now returns only a narrow 44–40 percent plurality, down from 58–26 percent last September. Moreover, support for these accounts declines substantially (to 41 percent in favor/52 percent opposed) among those who have heard the most about this idea—in other words, deeper knowledge of the private accounts idea appears to promote resistance to it. Perhaps most disheartening of all for the Bush administration, the “awareness breeds opposition” dynamic appears to be strongest among the 18-to-29-year-old cohort it is counting on to push Social Security privatization forward: rejection of private accounts is 26 points higher among 18- to 29-year-olds who have “heard a lot” about the idea than among those who have heard little or nothing.

And did I mention that 18- to 29-year-olds oppose allowing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, 54–33, according to this same poll? If Bush is counting on young voters to pull him out of his current slide, he had better think again.

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