Public Opinion Watch

(covering polls and related articles from the week of February 27- March 5, 2006)

Ruy Teixeira
Ruy Teixeira

In this edition of Public Opinion Watch:

The Great Bail-Out

Pessimism Deepens on Iraq

The Great Bail-Out

Bush’s approval rating is now consistently back in the ‘30s and the Democrats have been running strong double-digit leads in the generic Congressional ballot. These trends are being driven by what we might call “the great bail-out”, as not only are swing and independent voters moving sharply away from the GOP, but also a serious chunk of core GOP supporters. The latter development is truly frightening to Republican operatives and strategists who are only too aware of how dependent their election victories in the last several political cycles have been on rock-solid core support. Take that away and it’s a long way to the bottom.

Here are some data that illustrate the great bail-out.

1. In the latest Quinnipiac poll, Bush’s approval rating is an anemic 36 percent, with just 75 percent support among Republicans. And in the new LA Times poll, his approval rating is 38 percent, with 77 percent approval among Republicans. The sub-80 approval rating among Republicans could be here to stay.

2. These two polls also illustrate how far south Bush’s strong suit – his handling of the war on terror – has gone. In the Quinnipiac poll, his approval rating on “handling terrorism” was 42 percent, with 52 percent disapproval; in the LA Times poll, his rating on “handling the war on terrorism” was 44 percent with 54 percent disapproval. Amazing. Two ratings on his absolute best issue that are both net negative by 10 points. We are now living in a truly new political world.

3. In the latest Gallup poll, the Democrats are running a 14 point lead (53-39) among registered voters on the generic Congressional ballot question. The Gallup report on the poll summarizes the significance of this gaudy lead:

Gallup's recent trends on this "generic ballot" question — from October 2005 through early February 2006 — found a smaller six- to seven-point lead for the Democrats. However, the current 14-point Democratic lead is similar to a 12-point Democratic lead recorded last August. It is also among the highest seen since the Republicans came into power more than a decade ago.

This is not the first election since the Republican Party won majority control of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1994 that the Democrats have held a double-digit lead on this important indicator of electoral strength, but it is fairly rare. Throughout much of 1996 and in a couple of polls in 1998, the Democrats enjoyed a 10- to 13-point lead. However, the norm has been for the Republicans to trail the Democrats by only about five points among all registered voters…..

One reason why Democratic candidates may be doing so well in the current poll is that they enjoy a 22-point lead over Republican candidates among independent voters: 51% to 29%. Secondly, Republican voters are not as supportive of their own party's candidate as Democrats are of theirs. More than 9 in 10 Democrats (93%) say they favor the Democratic candidate for Congress in their district; 88% of Republicans are backing the Republican candidate.

4. Just how thoroughly has the public lost faith in Bush’s economic stewardship? In the LA Times poll, just 19 percent say the country’s economy is better off because of Bush’s economic policies than it was five years ago when he became president. That compares to 52 percent who believe his policies have made the economy worse and 26 percent who believe his policies haven’t had much effect. Even among Republicans, only 33 percent can bring themselves to say his economic policies have actually improved the economy.

5. And then there’s the incompetence thing. As Alan Abramowitz pointed out in a Sunday Washington Post article on Bush’s tanking approval ratings:

The problem for President Bush is a growing perception that he simply isn't competent….

The predecessor whom Bush has begun to resemble isn't, as many liberal Democrats seem to believe, Richard Nixon. It's Jimmy Carter. Carter's political demise began when the American people, including many Democrats, started to perceive him as in over his head in the Oval Office. That's what may be happening now to Bush.

Competence is not a partisan issue… [T]he way the port takeover was handled reinforced a growing impression among the public that nobody is really in charge in the Bush White House. How could the president not even have been consulted on an issue directly involving national security, Bush's strong suit in the minds of most Americans and especially most Republicans?

How indeed? And to underscore Abramowitz’s analysis, the Gallup poll cited above reports that only 40 percent now agree that Bush “can manage the government effectively, compared to 59 percent who disagree. Just the middle of last year, Bush was actually net positive on this measure, 53-45.

6. Finally, a very interesting new Democracy Corps analysis, “Cracks in the Two Americas: Republican Loyalists and Swing Blocs Move Toward the Democrats”, details the copious bleeding in the Bush coalition:

The most important shifts are taking place among the world of Republican loyalists, which will have big strategic consequences.1 It is reflected in the most recent Democracy Corps poll where defection of 2004 Bush voters to the Democrats is twice the level of defection of Kerry voters to the Republicans. Only 31 percent of voters in blue counties (those carried by Kerry) are voting Republican for Congress, but 41 percent of red county voters are supporting the Democratic candidate. The combined data set shows major shifts in the Deep South and rural areas (even before the most recent controversies), blue-collar white men, and the best educated married men with high incomes….

The other big shifts are taking place across the contested groups that form the swing blocs in the electorate. That is bringing big Democratic gains among older (over 50) non-college voters, the vulnerable women, practicing Catholics and the best-educated men. It is as if the entire center of the electorate shifted. This is why independents are breaking so heavily for the Democrats in each of our polls.

The great bail-out continues. And unless it moves back the other way, the electoral consequences for the GOP could be severe.

Pessimism Deepens on Iraq

In the latest Gallup poll, 55 percent think the US made a mistake sending troops to Iraq, 65 percent want to withdraw some or all troops–a new high–and, for the first time, a majority (52 percent) think we will not “win” in Iraq; and an overwhelming 75 percent believe it is likely there will be a major civil war in Iraq in the next year (or that there already is one).

Similarly, in the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll:

An overwhelming majority of Americans believe that fighting between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq will lead to civil war, and half say the United States should begin withdrawing its forces from that violence-torn country, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The survey found that 80 percent believe that recent sectarian violence makes civil war in Iraq likely, and more than a third say such a conflict is "very likely" to occur. These expectations extend beyond party lines: More than seven in 10 Republicans and eight in 10 Democrats and political independents say they believe such a conflict is coming….

The survey highlights how support for the war in Iraq dissolved since the first months after the U.S. invasion. At the end of 2003, nearly six in 10 – 59 percent – said the conflict was worth the cost; today, 42 percent share that view. In the past nine months, the proportion in Post-ABC polls who say the United States should begin withdrawing its troops has increased from 38 percent to a 52 percent majority….

The poll found that 56 percent think the United States is not making significant progress toward restoring civil order in Iraq, while 43 percent think that stability is being reestablished — a 17-point drop in optimism since December and the most pessimistic reading on this question since it was first asked in June 2004.

Donald Rumsfeld may deny that a civil war is unfolding in Iraq. But it would appear that the public – as usual – is way ahead of him.

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