Public Opinion Watch

Ruy Teixeira
Ruy Teixeira

(covering polls and related articles from the week of May 23–29, 2005)

In this edition of Public Opinion Watch:

Can the Democrats Become the Party of Change?
• Demographic Groups and Turnout in the 2004 Election

Can the Democrats Become the Party of Change?

That’s question number one for the Democrats to answer, because the public is ready – indeed, eager – for change. Consider these key results from the latest round of public polls:

1. The May 20-22 Gallup poll finds Bush’s overall approval rating at 46 percent and his approval ratings on the economy, Iraq and Social Security at 40, 40 and 33, respectively, all three of which are the worst he has ever received in those areas. Bush also receives his poorest evaluation ever on whether he has “the personality and leadership qualities a president should have,” one of his traditional strong suits: right now, only a narrow majority (52 percent) agrees and 45 percent disagree. And on whether “you agree or disagree with George W. Bush on the issues that matter most to you,” 57 percent of the public says they disagree and just 40 percent says they agree (another worst ever). Finally, the public believes, by 47-36, that the country would be better off if the Democrats, not the Republicans, controlled Congress.

2. The latest Quinnipiac University poll has Bush’s overall approval rating at 44 percent (39 percent among independents), his lowest ever in this poll. And, as Bush seeks to move the judiciary to the right, the poll finds 55 percent saying abortion should be legal in all or most cases and a very strong 63-33 majority expressing support for the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision establishing a woman’s right to an abortion.

3. The latest CBS News poll has Bush’s overall approval rating at 46 percent (40 percent among independents) and his approval rating on foreign policy at 40 percent (31/independents), on the economy at 38 percent (32/independents), on Iraq at 38 percent (29/independents) and on Social Security at 26 percent (24/independents). Right direction/wrong track is at 34/60 and, by 61-34, the public says Bush does not share the same priorities for the country that they have. They are even more skeptical of Congress, believing, by 68-20, that their priorities for the country are different from those of Congress.

4. The new Democracy Corps/Campaign for America’s Future poll makes the strongest case of all the recent polls on the public appetite for change. In this poll, right direction/wrong track is at 37/55 and, by 55-41, voters say they want the country to “go in a significantly different direction,” rather than continuing in Bush’s direction. According to the DCorps report, the latter sentiment is even more lopsided among independents (66 percent different direction/26 percent Bush’s direction), moderates (66/30) and white mainline Protestants (62/35). And even white rural voters favor a new direction by 49-46.

The figure on white mainline Protestants is worth paying particular attention to. In the 2004 election, according to the 2004 National Survey on Religion and Politics (conducted by John Green et. al., for the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life), white mainline Protestants moved strongly toward the Democrats, increasing their support of the Democratic presidential candidate by 10 points over 2000. That change brought this group to an even split of their vote between Kerry and Bush, while four years before they had given 60 percent of their two-party to Bush. Further movement in the Democrats’ direction on the part of white mainline Protestants would clearly endanger the GOP’s tenuous electoral majority.

On Iraq, the poll finds 57 percent of voters saying the war was not worth the cost in lives and dollars (including 52 percent who strongly endorse that sentiment) and just 38 percent saying the war was worth those costs. On the economy, by 62-36, voters say the economy is performing poorly for the middle class, rather than doing well. And on Social Security, voters reject Bush’s Social Security plan whether it is simply alluded to (56-34) or explained, including his progressive indexing proposal (58-36).

In addition, by 57-33, voters believe Congress has the wrong priorities and “isn’t working on the issues that matter to me” and, by 55-40, they endorse the idea that Democrats should make sure Bush and the Republicans don’t go too far in pushing their agenda, rather than work in a bipartisan fashion on Bush’s legislative priorities. Voters also favor Democrats over Republicans in next year’s congressional election by 5 points (48-43), which includes leads of 23 points among independents, 29 points among moderates, 19 points among white mainline Protestants and 9 points in the battleground states.

So: an appetite for change and a clear opening for the Democrats. The problem, as the DCorps report notes, is that voters still cannot bring themselves to be very enthusiastic about the Democrats – their favorability and thermometer ratings differ little from Republicans’ at this point. That’s because, while voters want real and substantial change, they still don’t see the Democrats as being the party of such change.

That’s the problem Democrats need to solve and the sooner the better. I believe the way to tackle the problem, as I argued in “Myths of Democratic Renewal,” is to identify the Democrats with good new ideas that change the way voters look at Democrats.

Let me illustrate this point by flagging another result from the DCorps poll: that the two items of a Democratic agenda that made the most voters say they would be more likely to vote for a Democratic candidate were both items in the education area (early childhood investment and affordable college). Yet Democrats currently have little to say in this area and didn’t appear to benefit much from education issues in the 2004 campaign. What gives?

Center for American Progress fellow Robert Gordon, in an important cover story, “Class Struggle: What Democrats Need to Say About Education,” in last week’s New Republic, makes a convincing case that Democrats have not benefited more from education issues because they have had little new and exciting to say to voters about these issues. Instead, they have repeated the same old tired refrain (“more money!”), which has just reinforced voter stereotypes about Democrats and certainly hasn’t made make them look like the party of reform and change.

Here are some excerpts from Gordon’s article where he makes his case, but I urge you to read the entire article:

“In the only exchange on education during the 2004 presidential debates, John Kerry made one argument: ‘The president who talks about No Child Left Behind refused to fully fund [it] by 28 billion dollars … he didn’t put in what he promised, and that makes a difference in the lives of our children.’ George W. Bush responded acidly: ‘Only a liberal senator from Massachusetts would say that a 49 percent increase in funding for education was not enough. We’ve increased funds. But, more importantly, we’ve reformed the system.’

That sums up the education debate in last year’s campaign. Bush championed reform and resources. Although Bob Dole had once wanted to shut down the Department of Education, in his first term, Bush supported standards-based accountability through the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). And, though he fell short of his promises on money, Bush did approve more than $30 billion in new K-12 education funding.

While Bush and the Republicans moved to the middle, Kerry and the Democrats retreated from it…. The party’s top three education demands were money, money, and money. ‘You cannot promise to leave no child behind and then leave the money behind,’ Kerry often said.

While Democrats reinforced the old idea that they just want to spend, Bush appealed to a public that wants both accountability and funding….

These are vivid memories for me. I was one of Kerry’s education advisers during the general election. I previously worked for – and have since advised – Edwards. The views expressed here are my own, but I bear plenty of responsibility for the developments described. Yet the attitudes of the candidates reflected the attitudes of the party. Top congressional Democrats today say nothing different.

It’s stunning to see Democrats lose their edge on education. That’s because, on education, Democrats don’t need to explain why the United States needs vigorous government; Americans already want effective public schools. Through education, Democrats reach for their own deepest aspiration: a country where birth doesn’t dictate destiny. Nothing offends Democratic ideals more than the fact that a typical poor or African American twelfth-grader reads at the same level as a typical middle-class or white eighth-grader. Nothing is a greater threat to middle-class prosperity than mediocre schools. If Democrats cannot speak powerfully to an issue that speaks so powerfully to them, they cannot expect to prevail on tougher ideological terrain.

To get the politics right, progressives need to act on a policy principle that Americans understand: Money ain’t everything….”

Gordon illustrates the approach progressives need to use by referring to the issue of teacher quality – an issue which consistently tops the public’s list of concerns about the public schools:

“The tougher challenge for progressives is not to fix NCLB, but to stop talking about it all the time – and instead offer an educational vision of their own. Bush isn’t vulnerable for supporting standards; he is vulnerable for believing standards are enough. Tests measure progress but don’t teach children.

Progressives should tackle a challenge all but ignored by Bush: strengthening the quality of teachers. As the Education Trust notes, good teachers are the single most important factor in good schools – affecting student achievement more than race, poverty, or parental education. Three years of good teachers can lift students’ scores by 50 percentile points compared with three years of lousy teachers, according to researcher William Sanders. But, as talented women have moved on to other professions, teacher quality has declined. Education majors score below national averages on standardized tests. Most schools do little to draw or keep more talented teachers: Onerous hiring procedures discourage able candidates, while the lockstep pay scale rewards seniority and accumulated degrees, not success. Schools offer $80,000 salaries to middle-aged and mediocre gym teachers while losing bright young chemistry teachers who make only $40,000. Today, a middling performer can get a routine grant of tenure after three years, then become virtually impossible to remove for three decades. One North Carolina study showed that school superintendents would have liked to remove about one in 25 tenured teachers per year, but actually removed fewer than one in 600. Teacher quality is lowest in the poorest schools, where good teachers are needed most. Students at high-poverty schools are nearly twice as likely to be taught by teachers who lack even a minor in the relevant subject.

Strengthening teaching requires changes to the pay system and school culture that abet mediocrity. Standing alone, the usual liberal solution – across-the-board pay hikes – perpetuates the maldistribution of good teachers and reinforces the irrelevance of achievement. High-poverty schools need to attract more teachers with bonuses, and all schools need to attract better teachers with the promise of higher earnings for better results. Teachers reasonably worry about arbitrary merit bonuses, but performance pay need not be arbitrary. Sanders and others are developing methods to measure each teacher’s contribution, accounting for students’ starting points and their expected progress. Together with peer and principal reviews, these methods promise at least as rich a basis for evaluation as those available in other professions where performance pay is the norm.

While schools need better pay to attract good teachers, they also need better systems to remove bad ones. Today dismissal can take years, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and require proof of outrageous conduct. That is unfair to students and good teachers who want peers who work as hard as they do. Faculty deserve protection against dismissals based on politics or personal animus, but schools should extend the periods needed to get tenure and streamline procedures so dismissals are fair but fast. Finally, talented young people seeking to enter teaching should not be required to get education degrees with no proven link to classroom performance.

Although still in their infancy, reforms along these lines have shown promise. When Chattanooga’s lowest-performing schools offered teachers $5,000 bonuses, free graduate-school tuition, and mortgage assistance, vacancies dropped by 90 percent. The Milken Family Foundation’s Teacher Advancement Program offers bonuses up to $5,000 based on a combination of evaluations and test scores. Most schools in the program are outperforming similar schools outside it. According to a recent evaluation, Teach for America’s talented novices, lacking traditional training, outperform typical teachers in math instruction and equal them in reading.

A sound national plan would put big money on the table for school districts that adopt real reforms in pay, tenure, and licensing for teachers. To see what works best, schools should be encouraged to try different – and ambitious – approaches. With federal help, a city might offer a promising new math teacher in a poor school district $60,000 instead of $40,000; after excelling in the classroom for two years, that teacher might earn $80,000. Raises averaging $20,000 for one-third of the teachers at 10 percent of schools would cost $2 billion annually in a system spending over $400 billion, but could show the way to transform teaching.

Progressive leaders should couple these reforms with a sustained call for Americans to teach in troubled schools. Twelve percent of Yale seniors applied to Teach for America this year. How many more talented Americans, young and old, would teach if their country called?

….Al Gore and John Kerry both offered agendas along these lines for teacher quality. But, after giving speeches and garnering media accolades, both candidates barely mentioned their ideas again. Nor have congressional Democrats stepped up to promote them.”

For the Democrats to succeed, that reticence has to stop. Americans will only come to regard the Democrats as the party of change if they sound like they’re willing to shake up the system, instead of issuing the same old call for more money. That means, while voters are ready for change, Democrats are going to have to do some changing of their own to capture that voter sentiment. We shall see if they’re up to it.

Demographic Groups and Turnout in the 2004 Election

There was a general rise in turnout in the 2004 election – around 6 percentage points (the exact figure varies depending on which denominator you use for eligible voters – see the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate and Michael McDonald’s United States Elections Project for two different estimates). But which demographic groups’ turnout went up the most and which went up the least in the election?

That interesting question is typically addressed right after the election by using data from the national exit polls. Of course, since the exit polls, by definition, include only voters, there is no direct measurement of any group’s turnout in the exit poll. But it is possible to take a given group’s representation in the exit poll sample and combine that with Census information about that group’s representation among all eligible voters plus the overall number of votes cast and derive an indirect turnout estimate. When you see turnout estimates for various demographic groups shortly after the election, that’s where they come from.

But there are problems with this procedure and it is certainly not one for which the exit polls were designed. These polls are designed to give information about the political preferences and attitudes of different demographic groups–information which is available nowhere else–not to generate reliable information about the demographic composition and turnout rates of the voting pool and how they have been changing over time.

For this reason, I always like to take a careful look at the Census Voter Supplement, administered as part of the November Current Population Survey (CPS) in every election year (Presidential and off-year). The Voter Supplement collects basic information about whether respondents voted, whether they were registered and a very small number of other items (for example, what time of day did the respondent vote?). No information is collected about who the respondent voted for and what the respondents’ political attitudes and partisan preferences are.

The lack of political information means the Voter Supplement is useless for examining what any given election is about. But, its huge size – 90,000 to 100,000 respondents 18 and over – combined with the rich demographic information always collected by the CPS makes it a superb source for analyzing how the demographics of the voting pool have changed over time.

The Census Bureau has now released the data from the 2004 Voter Supplement. Here are some findings of interest from these data:

1. Young voters had, by far, the strongest turnout surge of any age group. As shown in this nice chart provided by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), turnout among 18- to 24-year-old citizens surged 11 points, compared to only 5 points among 25- to 34-year-olds, 4 points among 35- to 44-year-olds and even less among older age groups. Note that the overall turnout increase in the Voter Supplement data is just a little over 4 points, so the measured 11 point increase among 18- to 24-year-olds is even more impressive.

2. By race, turnout rose the most among non-Hispanic white citizens (5.3 points), compared to 3.1 points among blacks, 2.1 points among Hispanics and 1.2 points among Asians. These data also provide a higher estimate of the non-Hispanic white proportion of voters in 2004 (79 percent vs. 77 percent in the NEP exit poll) and a lower estimate of the minority proportion of voters (21 percent vs. 23 percent).

3. The exit polls claimed that 26.1 percent of voters had a high school degree or less, 31.7 percent had some college or an associate degree and 42.1 percent had a four year college degree or more. The Voter Supplement, on the other hand, pegs the education distribution of voters at 36.6 percent with high school or less, 31 percent with some college and 32.4 percent with a four year degree or more. These are big differences.

Whose estimate is more likely to be right? In this case, it’s a pretty easy call to make. If we accepted the exit poll estimate that 42.1 percent of voters had a four year degree or more, that would imply that the turnout rate of college-educated citizens in 2004 was 101 percent.

That seems, well, just a wee bit on the high side. I suggest we all go with the Voter Supplement estimates on this one.

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