Public Opinion Watch

(covering polls and related articles from the week of February6- February 12, 2006)

Ruy Teixeira
Ruy Teixeira

In this edition of Public Opinion Watch:

• 2006 Outlook

• More on Women Voters

2006 Outlook

After showing some mild improvement for Bush and the GOP at the end of last year, the polls have faded again for the incumbent party and are suggesting they are in for a very rough election season. Consider the following recent data:

1. Bush’s approval rating may be headed back into the ‘30s. In the latest Gallup poll – which tends to run on the high side of public polls – his approval rating is back down at 39 percent, the first time Gallup’s rating has dipped below 40 since last November.

2. In the same poll, by 55-42, the public says the Iraq war was a mistake – the highest “mistake” reading since mid-September of last year and the second-highest ever. Also, 56 percent now describe themselves as opponents of the Iraq war, compared to only 40 percent who say they are supporters. Just 31 percent say the US is winning the Iraq war, the lowest reading ever.

3. The political center is bailing out on the GOP. In the latest Pew Research Center poll, Independents give the Democrats a gaudy 19 point lead (51-32) in the generic Congressional ballot. The comparison to the same point in the 2002 election cycle is instructive. According to the Pew Research Center report:

Four years ago, in the early stages of the 2002 midterm, independents were divided evenly over whether to vote Republican (42%) or Democratic (39%). The 19-point advantage Democrats hold among independents represents a sizable shift in voting intentions. By comparison, both Democrats and Republicans are just as loyal to their own congressional candidates today as they were in February 2002.

And Independents massively disapprove of how Bush is handling the country. In a recent Gallup analysis of approval ratings across a range of issues, Bush cracked the mid-30s among Independents on only one issue (terrorism) and even there his rating was only 48 percent. Following that was his overall approval rating at 35 percent, the economy at 31 percent, foreign affairs at 28 percent, Iraq also at 28 percent, energy policy at 23 percent and healthcare policy at 22 percent.

4. Not surprisingly, given the data just cited, Bush is a serious negative factor this year for GOP’ers running for election or re-election. As the Pew report points out:

Bush's net impact on the 2006 race so far is the opposite of what it was four years ago. In the late stages of the 2002 congressional campaign, 30% of voters said they thought of their congressional vote as a vote for George W. Bush, while 20% said they were voting against the president. Today, these figures are reversed – 31% say their midterm vote is a vote against Bush, while 18% are motivated by their support for the president.

5. The Pew data also confirm the lopsided issue advantage the Democrats have going into the 2006 election cycle. They have advantages on: the environment (+32); health care (+22); energy problems (+13); reforming government (+13); deficit reduction (+12); taxes (+11); education (+11), the economy (+11); immigration (+4); and Iraq (+3). Their only disadvantages are on crime (-7) and terrorism (-16). Note that the latter disadvantage is almost exactly half the size of the Democratic disadvantage on this issue at the same point in the 2002 election cycle.

6. Another factor weighing down GOP prospects for 2006 is the developing fiasco of the Medicare prescription drug plan, which was rolled out at the beginning of this year. Many analysts across the political spectrum predicted that the plan was so complicated and shot through with problems that it was bound to (a) work poorly as policy; and (b) be roundly disliked by the very constituency it was supposed to serve – seniors.

That appears to be happening. A just-released Democracy Corps report on public reaction to the new plan summarizes the situation as follows:

When President Bush signed the Medicare prescription drug plan into law at a ceremony in December of 2003, thousands of supporters and dozens of Republican congressmen cheered as the President stated that the new legislation was “the greatest advance in health care coverage for America’s seniors since the founding of Medicare.” The fanfare surrounding the bill signing was a clear indication that the president and his Republican allies believed the bill would serve as a major electoral asset to the party by helping to win over older voters and neutralize the long-held Democratic advantage on health care.

Just over two years later, Republicans’ initial hopes for the program now seem hopelessly naïve, as opposition to the prescription drug plan makes it a greater asset for Democrats in 2006 than for Republicans. Although the plan is already unpopular, Democrats now have the opportunity to raise opposition to the drug benefit to new heights and use the plan as a powerful symbol of Republican corruption and irresponsibility. Coupled with attacks over budget cuts to Medicare, an assault on the prescription drug program could cause serious damage to the GOP, especially among seniors.

As voters have learned more about the prescription drug plan over the past two months, opposition has steadily increased, with now just a quarter of the electorate viewing the plan positively, while the percentage perceiving it negatively is almost double (46 percent).

Among older voters, there is now a surging and intense opposition:

  • Among pre-retirees (50-64 years old), opposition to the plan has risen sharply from 38 percent this fall to 51 percent now, with less than a quarter holding a favorable impression of it.
  • Among seniors (65 years and older) – the voters that the program was designed to help – the hostility is just as strong, with these voters rejecting it by a 28-point margin.
  • Even more notable than the overall opposition is its intensity. Among both seniors and voters over 50, a third view the plan very negatively, more than three times the number of voters who view it very positively.

In congressional swing districts, the news for Republicans is not any better. The plan is viewed negatively by an 18-point margin and strong opponents outnumber strong supporters. Reception of the plan has been so poor that the President, previously the plan’s major proponent, did not even mention it in his State of the Union Address. One can hardly fault him for this however, as the program that he and Republicans had hoped would be instrumental in winning over swing voters is now rejected soundly by a majority of Independents and Democrats alike. Even Republican voters are not sold on the plan, as they are evenly divided in their views.

The best laid plans of mice and men……

More on Women Voters

Last week, I offered some very general thoughts on women voters and the progressive coalition. For a data-rich analysis of this issue that usefully breaks the women’s vote into a number of different subgroups and carefully considers the challenges progressives have reaching voters in these various subgroups, I strongly recommend Anna Greenberg’s piece, “Moving Beyond the Gender Gap” in the new book, Get This Party Started, edited by Matthew Kerbel. Her piece is available in abridged form on the Greenberg Quinlan Rosner website. Here’s some of what she has to say:

…[W]hite married women with kids have a range of concerns that are perfectly appropriate for progressives and Democrats to address. Reaching them requires reframing the cultural debate and expanding it to include a host of issues that concern their ability to raise children in a safe and healthy environment. Rather than accept the Right’s narrow definition of values (i.e., abortion, gay marriage), progressives should acknowledge the challenges parents face dealing with their kids’ sexuality and peer pressure around drugs and alcohol in an environment overrun with sex and violence on television, the Internet, and video games. Democrats and progressives should begin to talk about these concerns in simple language and should not shy away from taking progressive positions that are consistent with what moms’ value.

Moms are pragmatic and want their children to be raised with the right kind of values that will allow them to make responsible choices about their behavior. They want their kids to be faithful, be responsible, and understand the “Golden Rule,” and they worry that their kids will be sexually active too soon or will be exposed to alcohol and drugs. These concerns are neither inherently liberal nor conservative; many progressives share them and would be wise to engage in a discussion of these values. In this context, progressives can trumpet positions on social issues that are more in step with these voters’ concerns than positions taken by the Republican Party. The vast majority of moms support sex education in public schools and access to birth control, which the Bush administration and its allies oppose through their advocacy of “abstinence only” education. Moms support stem cell research and worry about the impact of pollution on their children’s health and safety, areas where the GOP has staked out entirely different ground.

Democrats and progressives, therefore, have an opportunity to reframe the cultural debate by emphasizing the ways that they care about families rather than by fighting defensive battles that box them into the “antifamily” corner. We do not have to retreat from supporting values we hold most dearly – like protecting a woman’s right to choose or only supporting “traditional” marriage – because, as John Kenneth White argues in this volume, cultural arguments need not have a left-right dimension or be policy specific= Democrats will be successful with women voters if they cast progressive responses to cultural issues in the same commonsense language moms use when they express concerns about their children. Even better, progressives do have policy positions consistent with these concerns.

And there’s more – much more! – of comparable insight in the article I urge you to read and digest the entire piece.

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