Public Opinion Watch

Ruy Teixeira
Ruy Teixeira

(covering polls and related articles from the week of April 18–24, 2005)

In this edition of Public Opinion Watch:

• Energy and the Environment? Now That You Mention It, He’s Doing a Bad Job There, Too
• How Low Can He Go?
• The Case of Pennsylvania
• A Crisis of Confidence?

Energy and the Environment? Now That You Mention It, He’s Doing a Bad Job There, Too

On Earth Day, Gallup released some data on the public’s view of Bush’s environmental record. Not surprisingly, it’s pretty negative.

On protecting the environment, half now say he’s doing a poor job, compared to just 39 percent who say that he’s doing a good job. That’s down from 51 percent who thought that he was doing a good job at the beginning of his first presidential term.

And on improving energy policy, his rating is even worse: only 32 percent think that he’s doing a good job in that area, twenty-six points down from the 58 percent who thought so at the beginning of his first term.

As for whether progress is being made on the environment, the public is quite pessimistic= Right now, 63 percent say that it is getting worse, more than twice the number who think it is getting better (29 percent).

The poll also shows that the public prefers a generally activist approach to improving the environment. As Gallup’s report on the poll notes:

“When asked if they ‘think the U.S. government is doing too much, too little, or about the right amount in terms of protecting the environment’ a clear majority of Americans (58%) say ‘too little’ and only a small minority (5%) say ‘too much.’ These figures represent the highest ratio of ‘too little’ to ‘too much’ observed since 1992, and a continuing increase in support for governmental action since a low point in March 2003 when 51% held this view.

Such results demonstrate that the vast majority of Americans do not want to see a reduction in the government’s environmental protection efforts (as 92% respond that it is doing ‘too little’ or ‘about the right amount’).

Similarly, Americans continue to favor the environment when asked to choose between environmental protection and economic growth. After dipping slightly below 50% last year, a majority (53%) once again says that protection of the environment should be given priority, when environmental protection conflicts with economic growth.”

Ipsos-AP have released new data specifically on energy problems and how well Bush is handling them. The verdict: not well at all.

In the poll, exactly twice as many (62 percent) say that Bush is not handling the nation’s energy problems effectively as say that he is (31 percent). The poll also finds 88 percent saying that the higher gas prices affect them personally either a lot (55 percent) or some (33 percent) and 51 percent saying that gas price increases will cause them financial hardship in the next six month, including 30 percent who describe the hardship as “serious.”

In terms of specific actions due to increased energy prices, 60 percent say that they’ve turned down the heat or air conditioning in their home, 58 percent have reduced the amount of driving they do and 57 percent have cut back on other expenses.

Energy and the environment: two more areas where the public is apparently starting to run out of patience with the Bush administration’s failures.

How Low Can He Go?

Who knows? But two new polls suggest he hasn’t hit the floor yet.

The new CBS News poll has some truly cringe-inducing findings for the Bush administration. On the classic right direction/wrong track question, just 32 percent say the nation is going in the right direction, compared to 62 percent who say it is off on the wrong track. That’s a net negative of thirty points on this question, a swing of twenty points from February’s rating in this poll, when it was “only” ten points net negative (42 percent/52 percent right direction/wrong track).

Moreover, this question generates an astonishingly negative response among independents: 26 percent right direction/67 percent wrong track. Wow!

Bush’s overall approval/disapproval is now 44 percent/51 percent (-7), compared to 43 percent/48 percent (-5) in March. His approval rating on Iraq is now 39 percent/56 percent (-17), down from 39 percent/53 percent (-14) in February. His economic approval is down to 34 percent/57 percent from 36 percent/53 percent in March. And even his rating on handling the campaign against terrorism has sunk to 53 percent/41 percent, from 61/33 in February.

Bush’s approval ratings among independents are all substantially lower than even the anemic figures cited above: 36 percent/56 percent overall; 35 percent/59 percent on Iraq, 29 percent/60 percent on the economy (!); and 50 percent/41 percent on the campaign against terrorism.

And how about this one: are you confident or uneasy about Bush’s ability to make the right decisions about Social Security? That question returned a crushingly negative 70 percent uneasy/25 percent confident response.

Perhaps reflecting which way the wind is now blowing, Democrats in Congress in this poll now get a better favorability rating (49 percent favorable/40 percent unfavorable) than their Republican counterparts (42 percent/49 percent, including 34 percent/50 percent among independents). That’s a switch from what public polls earlier in the year had been showing.

The new ARG poll provides similarly sobering news for the White House. The poll has Bush’s overall approval rating at 44 percent/50 percent and his economic approval rating at 38 percent/56 percent—the latter rating the worst rating he has received going back to April 2004 (the ARG release does not provide any data earlier than that date).

The poll also shows an exceptional level of economic pessimism. In terms of whether the national economy is getting worse or better, 53 percent say that it is getting worse, 25 percent say that it is getter better, and 21 percent say that it is staying the same. The 53 percent figure is the most negative figure recorded going back to last April. Moreover, when asked where the economy will be in a year, an amazing 44 percent say that it will be worse than today, compared to 27 percent better and 25 percent the same. That 44 percent figure compares to just 2 percent last April who thought that conditions in a year would be worse.

More evidence that economic pessimism is running rampant is provided in an April 21 article in the Washington Post, “Economic Worries Aren’t Resonating on the Hill.” That article cites just-released Washington Post/ABC News Consumer Comfort survey data showing that almost half (48 percent) now think that the economy is getting worse, compared to just 14 percent who think that it is getting better. That’s the most negative reading on this question in two years of monthly polls.

Can Bush go lower? On this evidence, I’d have to say yes. How much lower? Don’t know, but the way things are going, it could be considerably lower. Stay tuned.

The Case of Pennsylvania

It is easy to show how boneheaded actions and poor performance in areas from Social Security and Terri Schiavo to the economy and Tom DeLay are dragging down Bush’s popularity and that of his party. But the key question from now through the 2006 election will be the extent to which that unpopularity spreads to the GOP’s congressional candidates and drags down their electoral fortunes.

Which brings us to the very interesting case of Pennsylvania. Based on a new Quinnipiac University poll, it appears that in this state Republican Senator Rick Santorum, up for re-election in 2006, is definitely being hurt by his association with unpopular GOP initiatives. As Clay Richards, assistant director of the poll, notes:

“The numbers show clearly that Sen. Santorum has lost ground in his re-election bid over the last two months. The Senator has come under strong criticism for his outspoken involvement in the Schiavo case and his campaigning for President Bush’s unpopular Social Security proposal.”

Let’s take a look at some of the data from the poll.

  1. Santorum’s approval rating is down to 48 percent approval/35 percent disapproval (40 percent/40 percent among independents), only the second time his rating has been below 50 percent. Bush’s approval rating in the state is down to 43 percent, with 55 percent disapproval (37 percent/60 percent among independents), his second worst rating ever.
  2. Santorum’s re-elect number has slipped to 44 percent, down nine points from February’s 53 percent. And he now loses to Democrat Bob Casey in a Senate horse race question by 49 percent to 35 percent, a contest that was only 46 percent to 41 percent in February. Santorum gets thumped, 52 percent to 28 percent among independents, loses 62 percent to 28 percent in the Philadelphia area and loses every other area of the state (except the central area) by at least eleven points.
  3. Bush’s proposal to change Social Security “to allow people to invest some of their Social Security taxes in stocks and bonds” is opposed 55 percent to 37 percent by Pennsylvania voters (59 percent to 31 percent among independents).
  4. By 38 percent to 15 percent (41 percent to 11 percent among independents), Pennsylvania voters say that Santorum’s advocacy of Bush’s proposal makes them less likely not more likely to vote for him. And by 34 percent to 14 percent (41 percent to 11 percent among independents), Pennsylvania voters say that Santorum’s role in urging Congress to intervene in the Schiavo case makes them less likely, not more likely, to vote for him.

Sounds like Santorum’s loyal service to the Bush machine is starting to backfire on him! And that’s got to make Bob Casey—and Democrats who want to take back Congress—very happy indeed.

A Crisis of Confidence?

That’s how the new DCorps memo, based on their latest poll, describes voters’ views on the Republican direction for the country. The following data from the poll buttress their interpretation:

  1. Just 34 percent believe that the country is headed in the right direction, down seven points in the last month and at the lowest point of Bush’s presidency (and all of the DCorps’ polling since 1999).
  2. In terms of Bush’s direction for the country, only 41 percent now say that they want to continue in his direction, compared to 55 percent who say that they want to go in a significantly different direction—again, the lowest point on this indicator of his presidency.
  3. In terms of particular issue areas, voters feel the country is going in the wrong direction, rather than right direction, on the federal budget deficit, by fifty-seven points, on health care by thirty-nine points, on the economy by seventeen points, on education by fourteen points, and on middle-class living standards by fourteen points
  4. In terms of Bush’s Social Security proposal, voters are adamantly opposed. As the DCorps report notes:
    “[S]upport for the president’s Social Security initiative has collapsed. The more voters hear during the president’s 60-day campaign to educate the country, the less they like it. Today, just 34 percent support the idea of Bush’s Social Security reform—down to its lowest point. Opposition is up 8 points in a month, now at 58 percent. . . . [A]fter a brief period of assessing…private account[s], the country is determined to put a knife in this idea. In the last month, opposition [to private accounts specifically] has jumped to 60 percent, up 9 points, and half the country is strongly opposed. This idea is as dead with the public as anything the administration has offered.”
  5. In terms of which party would do a better job, Democrats now hold a twenty-two-point advantage on retirement and Social Security, a nineteen-point advantage on middle-class living standards, and a nine-point advantage on the economy.
  6. On party associations, Democrats hold a thirty-one-point advantage on being for people, rather than special interests, a twenty-two-point advantage on being for the middle class, a twenty-one-point advantage on caring about people, a nineteen-point advantage on putting the public interest first, a twelve-point advantage on protecting personal liberties, a twelve-point advantage on being on your side, a nine-point advantage on being in touch, and a six-point advantage on reform and change.
  7. Finally, in terms of the generic Congressional ballot, Democrats lead the GOP by five points (47 percent to 42 percent), including an eighteen-point advantage among independents (43 percent to 25 percent) and a twenty-six-point advantage among moderates (57 percent to 31 percent).

The problem for the Democrats, of course, is to translate this obvious disenchantment with the GOP and these emerging Democratic advantages into real political gains for the party in 2006 and beyond. We shall see if they are up to it, but the opportunity is clearly there.

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