Public Opinion Watch

(covering polls and related articles from the week of October 24-30, 2005)

Ruy Teixeira
Ruy Teixeira

In this edition of Public Opinion Watch:

• It’s the Corruption and Cronyism, Stupid

• Public Opinion on Immigration

• Public Opinion on Stem Cell Research

It’s the Corruption and Cronyism, Stupid

Iraq. The economy. Social Security. Katrina. The Bush administration has a lot to answer for as we move into 2006. But with the indictment of Lewis “Scooter” Libby on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice, the issue of corruption and cronyism in Washington presents itself as a potentially decisive addition to that mix. When the public is already looking for change (see “Change Constituency Continues to Grow” from last week), intensified ethics concerns may well be the straw the breaks the camel’s back.

Some data supporting this view are provided by two polls conducted right after the Libby indictment. Here are the key findings.

1. The new Washington Post/ABC News poll measures Bush’s job approval as 39 percent, with 58 percent disapproval, easily his worst rating yet in this poll, which tends to run high relatively high on Bush’s approval ratings. The poll also finds more than twice as many strongly disapproving (45 percent) as strongly approving (22 percent) of Bush’s job performance. In addition, the poll finds 25 percent of Republican identifiers disapproving of Bush’s job performance, a 17 point jump since the beginning of this year. If this trend continues, the assumption that Bush can’t fall much below 40 percent approval will be called into question, since that assumption is based on the claim that Bush’s support among Republicans will not fall below the 80-85 percent level.

2. The same poll finds almost two-thirds of the public (64 percent) giving Bush a negative rating (“only fair” or “poor”) for his handling of ethics in government. That figure includes nearly one-third of Republicans and a whopping 71 percent of independents. Moreover, almost half of the public (46 percent) says the overall level of ethics and honesty in the federal government has declined during Bush’s presidency, compared to just 15 percent who say it has improved.

3. On the Libby indictment itself, 69 percent call it a serious charge and only 26 percent term it a technical or minor charge. And 55 percent believe that the Libby indictment indicates “broader problems with ethical wrongdoing in the Bush administration,” rather than that it is an “isolated incident” (41 percent).

4. In the new CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, 56 percent now say the phrase “can manage the government effectively” does not apply to Bush, compared to 43 percent who think it does. That reverses the July result on the same question, where, by 53-45, the public thought that phrase did apply to Bush.

5. By 55-42, the public now pronounces Bush’s presidency so far to have been a failure. And they are not optimistic about the future: by 55-41, they expect the last three years of Bush’s presidency to also be a failure.

6. On the Libby indictment specifically, 76 percent believe Libby either did something illegal (45 percent) or unethical (31 percent). On the other hand, in contrast to the ABC News result, 55 percent describe the Libby charges as stemming from an isolated incident, rather than indicating “low ethical standards” for the Bush administration (38 percent). This difference could stem from the somewhat tougher language of this question (“low ethical standards” vs. “broader problems with ethical wrongdoing”) and the fact that the Gallup poll does not mention that the leaked name was of an undercover CIA employee, while the ABC News poll does specify this detail.

These data indicate that ethical problems are likely to aggravate an already dicey situation for the GOP as they head toward the 2006 elections. Just how difficult that situation was even before the indictments were handed down is clearly outlined in a recent Gallup report based on pre-indictments data. That report rightly notes that Democratic leads in the generic congressional ballot, especially this far ahead of the election, should be treated with great caution. But other more consequential indicators do suggest a difficult time for the GOP in 2006:

“Besides the generic ballot, there are some stronger indications that the Republican majority in Congress may be in trouble. Chiefly, Americans' overall approval rating of Congress is, according to Gallup's Oct. 13-16 poll, just 29%. That compares with 50% approval for Congress in October 2002 and 44% in October 1998. The last time congressional approval fell below 30% was in 1994 – the year the previously entrenched Democratic majority was ousted by a Republican tidal wave.

Also, the percentage of registered voters who believe that most members of Congress deserve to be re-elected has fallen below 50% for the first time since 1994. Today, just 46% believe most members of Congress deserve another term, while 44% disagree. While not as low as the 38% found just before the 1994 elections, the 46% today is substantially lower than the 57%-58% recorded before the past two midterm elections….

The impact Bush will have on the congressional elections is unclear, but in principle, his low approval ratings cannot help the Republican Party. If his ratings continue to dip into the low 40s, as they have for the past two months, he could be a greater liability to Republican candidates than was Bill Clinton in 1994.

This finding is underscored by a separate question asking voters what impact a candidate's relationship with Bush will have on their vote for that candidate. By a 55% to 39% margin, a majority of voters say they would be more likely to vote for a congressional candidate who opposes Bush than for a candidate who supports him. Only 6% say it would make no difference.

This is notably more negative than what Gallup found in 1994 and 1998 in reaction to Clinton. In neither case did a majority of voters say they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who opposed Clinton.

A follow-up question, asking voters how strongly they feel about a candidate's support for Bush, reveals an even more dramatic difference in Bush's potential impact on the election. Close to half of all voters today (47%) feel very strongly about voting for a candidate who opposes Bush. Even in 1994, when Clinton's approval rating was similar to Bush's current rating, a much lower percentage (36%) expressed this level of animosity toward Clinton.”

Again, all these data were collected before the Libby indictments came down. It seems fair to say that 2006 is shaping up to be very rough year for the GOP.

Public Opinion on Immigration

Immigration is heating up as a political issue and, right now, Bush sports a very low 21 percent approval rating on the issue, with 53 percent disapproval, according to a recent CBS News poll. It is useful to consider how much public opinion is changing as the issue assumes more prominence. The answer is: not much; the basic structure of public opinion on immigration seems to be quite stable.

For example, in the CBS News poll, 51 percent say they want legal immigration decreased, compared to 30 percent who prefer the present level and 11 percent who think it should be increased. That’s essentially the same result that CBS obtained in July. A 2004 CBS poll found somewhat more support for immigration, a 2001 poll found somewhat less and a 1996 poll found about the same level. So, while there’s some fluctuation over time, there’s not much of a long-term trend. This is a pattern that applies to most other general questions about immigration as well.

The CBS poll also finds three-quarters saying that government is “not doing enough” to keep illegal immigrants from crossing into the U.S., compared to 15 percent who say the government is doing enough and 4 percent who say it is doing too much. On the other hand, the public opposes, by a wide 65-31 margin, allowing volunteer “minutemen” to patrol the border to keep out illegal immigrants. Other useful polling results on immigration can be summarized as follows:

1. The public tends to be roughly evenly divided about whether immigrants are mostly a burden on the country or mostly strengthen the country, though a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll (April 2005) had it slightly negative. In that poll, 48 percent said immigrants weaken the country because they put a burden on services, as opposed to strengthen it due to their hard work (41).

2. The same poll asked whether immigrants are an economic benefit because they fill jobs Americans won’t take or were an economic threat because they take jobs away from Americans, the public was almost perfectly split (46/45).

However, CBS News has asked a question for years about whether immigrants take jobs Americans don’t want or take jobs away from current Americans. The last time they asked this, in the poll cited above, 58 percent said they take jobs Americans don’t want, compared to only 31 percent who said they take jobs away from current Americans.

That poll also found that 46 percent believe immigrants work harder than people born here, slightly more than the number who say there isn’t much difference (43 percent) and way more than the number who believe immigrants don’t work as hard as the native-born (6 percent).

3. When asked about the impact of legal and illegal immigration separately, the public tends to feel positively about the economic impact of legal immigration (42-23 helped/hurt) but negatively about illegal immigration (54-18 hurt/helped) (Kaiser, August 2004).

4. In the same poll, by 58-35, the public believes recent immigrants send most of their money back home, rather than spending it in the U.S.

5. An essentially identical group (58-33) believes recent immigrants do not pay their fair share of taxes.

6. Most Americans (54 percent) believe most recent immigrants are in the country illegally.

7. Americans’ top concern about illegal immigration was the impact of that immigration on government services like health care and schools, rather than its impact on jobs.

Whatever policies the political parties choose to advocate on immigration will have to take into account this basic structure of public opinion on immigration, since it appears to be changing very little over time.

Public Opinion on Stem Cell Research

One area where American public opinion does not appear to be very stable is the public’s view of stem cell research. Here there is clear evidence of a shift toward more support for this kind of research. The most recent evidence of this shift comes from the annual Life Sciences Survey, conducted by the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Center for Public Policy. The 2005 survey finds 58 percent in favor of “medical research that uses stem cells from human embryos,” compared to 32 percent who oppose such research. Since the 2002 survey, which registered 51-33 opposition to stem cell research, support has climbed, and opposition dropped, in every year’s survey.

The poll finds little evidence, however, of change in public attitudes toward use of cloning technology. Public support for cloning per se is 15 percent, about where it has been for the last five years. Public support for use of cloning technology if it is only applied to medical research is substantially higher – 43 percent – but that figure also appears to be stable and not moving at this point toward becoming a majority view.

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