Public Opinion Watch

(covering polls and related articles from the week of March 6- March 12, 2006)

Ruy Teixeira
Ruy Teixeira

In this edition of Public Opinion Watch:

Views of Bush and the Iraq War Hit New Lows

The UN: Good Idea, Bad Execution

Views of Bush and the Iraq War Hit New Lows

In the latest Gallup and CBS News (pdf) polls, views of Bush and the Iraq war — now three years old — have hit some startling new lows.

As the USA Today story on the Gallup poll points out:

“The latest results show only 36% of those polled saying they “approve” of the way Bush is handling his job. Bush’s previous low was 37%, set last November.

Sixty percent of those polled said they “disapprove” of Bush’s performance. That matches an all-time worst rating hit last November and again two weeks ago.

Democrats have their biggest advantage since 1992 when poll respondents are asked if they favor Democratic or Republican congressional candidates. The spread: Democrats over Republicans 55% — 39%, a 16-percentage-point gap.”

There’s more in the poll, but let’s dwell on these approval results for a moment. First, when added to other recent poll results, they indicate that Bush’s approval rating has been dropping unusually fast for the last several results. Here is the analysis of political scientist Charles Franklin, as posted on his website, Political Arithmetik (emphasis added):

“President Bush’s approval rating fell to 36% in the Gallup poll conducted 3/10-12/06. This was a new low for the President in Gallup’s polling. Disapproval remained unchanged at 60%, with 4% undecided. The addition of the new Gallup data drives my estimated support (the blue line in the figure) to 36.9%, also a new low for President Bush.

Since January 1, 2006 the President’s approval rating has fallen at a rate of 1% every 12.5 days, the most rapid sustained rate of decline in his presidency. Over the entire year of 2005, a particularly bad year for the President, approval declined at a rate of 1% every 29.3 days.”

Second, Bush’s falling approval rating appears to be mostly driven by falling ratings among independents and Republicans. Compared to a year ago in the Gallup poll, his rating has fallen only three points among Democrats (from 16 percent to 13 percent), but 16 points among GOP identifiers (from 91 percent to 75 percent) and an amazing 23 points among independents (from 46 percent to 23 percent).

Finally, as Gallup and other polls have shown, two-thirds or more of Bush’s disapproval is now strong disapproval, and those strong disapprovers generally outnumber strong approvers by more than 2:1. In other words, he has far more strong enemies than strong friends in today’s electorate. Political scientist Alan Abramowitz has usefully summarized the considerable electoral implications of this development:

“An analysis of National Election Study data on voting patterns in midterm elections between 1982 (when the NES began asking a presidential approval question) and 2004 indicates that voters with strong opinions of the president’s performance are more likely to base their House vote on their opinion of the president than voters with only weak opinions. Moreover, voters with strong negative opinions are by far the most likely to base their House vote on their opinion of the president.

Across these six midterm elections, the average percentage of each group whose House vote was consistent with its opinion of the president’s job performance was as follows:

Strongly approve 72%

Weakly approve 49%

Weakly disapprove 70%

Strongly disapprove 85%

With 44% of the public now strongly disapproving of George Bush’s performance, these results provide further reason to expect substantial Democratic gains in the 2006 midterm elections.”

Other results worth noting from the new Gallup poll:

1. A majority (51 percent) now term Bush a “weak president” rather than a strong one (47 percent).

2. The Democrats in Congress now have a 15-point lead over the Republicans on who can do the best job of dealing with the economy (53-38). The Democrats also have an eight-point lead on who can do the best job of dealing with the situation in Iraq (48-40) and only a four-point deficit on dealing with terrorism (in 2003, they had a massive 26-point deficit on this issue).

3. Here’s an interesting one: Gallup gave respondents five choices for what Bush’s presidency would be most remembered for: Iraq, efforts against terrorism, Hurricane Katrina response, Supreme Court appointments and tax cuts. An overwhelming 64 percent chose Iraq — just 18 percent chose efforts against terrorism. The rest chose Katrina (10 percent), court appointments (five percent) and tax cuts (a mere two percent).

4. On Iraq, 57 percent now say sending troops to Iraq was a “mistake,” 60 percent say things are going badly there, 67 percent don’t think Bush has a clear plan for handling the situation, and 51 percent think the Bush administration misled the public about whether Iraq had WMD.

The new CBS News poll also has a great deal about Iraq, some of which makes the Gallup findings look comparatively mild. For example, 54 percent now think Iraq will never become a stable democracy. Moreover, just 28 percent think that if Iraq does manage to become a stable democracy, the U.S. will be more safe from terrorism.

As for what is going on there right now, an astounding 71 percent think Iraq is currently experiencing a civil war, with another 13 percent saying that civil war is likely to break out in the near future. And 66 percent think that when Bush talks about how things are going for the U.S. in Iraq, he makes things sound better than they really are.

In addition, by 54-41, the public now says the U.S. should have stayed out of Iraq and, by 70-25 — the most lopsided result ever — the public says the results of the Iraq war have not been worth the associated costs.

Other findings of note from the poll:

1. Bush’s overall approval rating is still at 34 percent, tied for his worst-ever in this poll. His rating on Iraq is 31 percent and his rating on foreign policy is just 30 percent, down nine points since this January. And his rating on the economy is 35 percent. Only on the campaign against terrorism does he crack the forties, with a 45 percent rating, against 47 percent disapproval.

It’s interesting to note how negative independents are at this point: In every area except terrorism, independents rate Bush not in the 30s but in the 20s, ranging from 24 to 28 percent. That’s a truly toxic place to be with the center of the American electorate.

2. Despite a somewhat higher proportion of the public rating the economy as “good,” those saying the economy is getting worse (39 percent) still far outnumber those saying the economy is getting better (13 percent). In fact, this disproportion is actually worse than it was two months ago.

These findings are so bad it’s tempting to say Bush can’t possibly sink any lower. But with this administration I’ve learned: Never say never!

The UN: Good Idea, Bad Execution

The public doesn’t appear to be too fond of the UN these days. In a recent Gallup poll, just 30 percent of the public said the UN was doing a good job “trying to solve the problems it has to face.” That’s a six-point decline since last year and the second-worst rating ever for the institution.

On the other hand, there’s no evidence the public is giving up on the idea of the UN. In fact, while the UN’s job rating was declining in the last year, the public’s view of the role the UN should play was actually strengthening, as the proportion saying the UN should play a “leading role,” where all countries are required to follow UN policies, rose five percent (to 26 percent).

Another 42 percent say the UN should play a major role in setting global policy, for a total of 68 percent who want the UN to play a substantial role. Only 28 percent believe the UN should be relegated to a minor role as a forum for inter-country communication.

By these data, the public can be gauged a strong supporter of the UN’s potential role in world affairs but a strong critic of its current role. Perhaps future polling will tell us more about the origins of this disjuncture in public opinion.

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