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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

What Do Bush’s Current Approval Ratings Mean?

The latest Gallup poll measured Bush’s approval rating at 60 percent. How should we interpret this?
USA Today said on its website: “Bush Approval Rating Grows”. Not reallly. In fact, compared to Gallup’s last poll, his approval rating has actually declined by 3 points, giving back almost half of the bounce he received from Saddam’s capture (a trend which DR predicted would quickly emerge unless the situation on the ground in Iraq improved dramatically–which, of course, it hasn’t).
Well, but how about the fact, as Gallup points out, Bush’s approval rating at this point is higher than recent presidents seeking re-election like Bush I and even Bill Clinton?
The problem here (even accepting the level indicated by Gallup, which has been running high relative to other public polls) is trend. Bush’s 60 percent rating is being captured post-bounce, in the midst of a downward trend where most of that bounce could easily disappear. This, in fact, has been the pattern throughout the entire Bush administration–LiberalOasis calls it the “Bush Cycle”–where an approval spike generated by a Big Event (9/11, the invasion of Iraq, the capture of Saddam) is followed by a long period of decline where he loses support at the rate of 2-3 points a month.
If this pattern repeats itself, Bush’s post-Saddam capture increase in his approval rating will vanish in another month or two and he’ll be back at 50 percent and headed down in another couple of months (sooner in other polls because, again, Gallup’s approval ratings have been running high).
If that happens, then Bush doesn’t look so good. The last two presidents to get re-elected (Reagan and Clinton) had approval ratings that went up in the first half of the election year. The last two presidents to get defeated for re-election (Carter and Bush I) had approval ratings that went down over the same period. Which of these categories Bush II belongs to is likely to be more predictive of his fate than the current level of his approval rating.

12 comments on “What Do Bush’s Current Approval Ratings Mean?

  1. loves me, loves me not on

    how do bush’s disapproval ratings compare to clinton’s? if i remember right, clinton was in a heap of trouble in january 1996 before his masterful SOTU address which stole all the key Republican issues.

  2. Upper left on

    Dan: I agree that Ruy should either give us objective analysis or be direct about being a cheerleader for Clark.
    Linus: Wow! Without meaning to be disrespectful or pick a fight, your post is exctly the sort of pseodo-analysis/attack that I have found so offensive over the past couple of months.
    IMO, you start by assuming your conclusion, “I like Howard Dean… but he simply can’t win.” You state this conclusion with the same same certainty as if you were saying “the earth is round.” I find this overstated confidence, on an outcome that is clearly not certain, a bit arrogant.
    Proceeding from your conclusion, you throw up a mix of policy arguments and personal attacks:
    1) Lack of foriegn policy experience:
    Five of the last six Presidents have been Governors with no foriegn policy credentials. It is an axiom of American politics that voters make decisions on issues that directly effect them. Even in the current post 9/11 environment, surveys indicate that foriegn policy and terrorism are the top concern of only about 20% of the voters, the rest are more concerned with domestic issues.
    If Democrats are going to make an effective critique of Bush’s foriegn policy, it needs to be simple, clear, and defensible. Dean’s position is simple: we need to be strong; we shoundn’t have gone to Iraq because there was no immenent danger; we need to concentrate our resources on homeland security and hunting down Al Qaida; and finally, we need to restore moral purpose to our policy and work with our allies. This position is in agreement with the facts and with the opinions of a majority of voters.
    2) Taxes:
    This is the one area where I agree Dean has a problem. Given a choice between fiscal responsibility in the long run and taxes in the short run, I am not confident that a majority are prepared to take their medicine. Dean has resisted announcing a plan like Clark’s because, the truth is, we have to make choices. Given a menu of lower taxes, balanced budgets, and significant health care reform, we can choose any two items, but we can’t have all three.
    It is obvious from the press reports that Dean’s advisors are in agreement about the need to announce some sort of plan. However, there appears to be some disagreement about timing or the content of that plan. Personally, I would prefer some sort of reduction in payroll taxes to the Clark approach. We will have to wait and see.
    3) Alienating moderates:
    The DLC (with Lieberman as attack-dog-in-chief)has been hammering Dean for over six months. They have lied about Dean’s record and positions, twisted his words, and slandered his character. Frankly, I loved Dean’s comment. If the DLC doesn’t want to be kidded about being Republicans, they should stop doing Karl Rove’s job for him.
    I and thousands of others have been all over the net trying to convince Lieberman and other DLC types that it is fine to contrast their policy positions with Dean, but it is not acceptable to continue to engage in character assasination against the guy who is the most likely nominee of our party. After dishing it out for six months, the fact that these folks squeal about one comment from Dean is total bull***t.
    4) Dean’s personality:
    Everyone is entitled to their own opinion about each candidate’s personality and speaking style. IMO: Gep is boring and mechanical; Kerry is pompous and unfocused; Clark is OK, but not inspiring; Edwards is the best speaker and oozes folksy charm, but I worry that he is almost too good, that his trial laywer background makes him vulnerable to accusations of being too slick.
    Regarding Dean,I agree, he can be a bit stiff at times. But if you actually watch him, he has a great smile and a warm touch when he is talking to people in small groups. It is tough to generalize from our personal reactions, but Dean has certainly inspired the most small donations, volunteer activity, and loyalty amongst his troops. Given this, I find it hard to conclude that his personality is a significant problem.
    I doubt that what we write here is going to change anyone’s opinion. I do hope to persuade those of you who are supporting other candidates to be a bit more cautious in your pronouncements about Dean’s electability. He is still the most likely nominee of our party and it would be good if we don’t damage his chances in the fall.

  3. Dan Perreten on

    Ruy! Less PR and more analysis, please!
    You haven’t been shy about stating your preference for Clark, but I was disappointed to see you shilling so blatantly in your last post, “Clark on the Move,” January 7 (I put my comment here because it’s the currently active thread).
    Specifically, right up at the top of your post, you cited the latest Gallup national poll, which showed a big surge for Clark (at 20 percent) to Dean’s 24. You wrote that the Gallup poll “has Clark closing the gap with Dean dramatically among Democrats and Democratic leaners.”
    Yet any serious, disinterested analyst would have flagged this poll as an outlier. It wasn’t in line with other national polls that came out the previous. I believe it polled “registered Democrats” instead of likely voters — the latter would have given a more accurate picture, and it is your responsibility to point out these factors when one poll differs significantly from others.
    Now that we have three polls released since the Gallup poll, we can definitely say that it was an anomaly. Here are the Dean-Clark numbers this past week:
    Newsweek: 24-12
    Fox poll: 20-13
    Rasmussen: 22-13
    You provide detailed, skeptical analyses whenever polls (and their media spinners) tout high approval for Bush. By abandoning that professional detachment in your support of Clark, by doing some of your own data cherry-picking and spinning, you only do a disservice to your own integrity, honor, and reputation.
    Clark IS on the move — in New Hampshire. This IS significant for his campaign, and he seems to have a great January strategy (abandoning Iowa isn’t looking like such a bad move now). He is certainly benefiting from not having a hostile media looking into and twisting every sentence he’s ever uttered.
    But it really is not kosher to spin the polls this way.

  4. frankly0 on

    “Finally, I am curious to hear the thoughts of the Clark supporters, regarding the fact that Gore, Bradley, and now Harkin have endorsed Dean. Dean also leads in super-delegates. Do you think these people are all stupid? Do you think they are all lemmings?”
    Surely one explanation for their support of Dean would be simply a belief that Dean is the likely winner of the nomination, and that, the earlier they support Dean, the more they can themselves draw on the support of the Dean contingent in times to come. They are hardly disinterested parties basing their support on a careful political calculation of Dean’s chances in the general election.

  5. Linus on

    Other than the fact that Dean has no foreign policy experience (neither did Clinton but we weren’t at war in 1992 nor had we suffered the worst terrorist attack in history three years prior to that election) and he wants to repeal all of the Bush tax cut which would raise taxes on the middle class (of course, he’s now decided that he had better do a 180 on this policy because he’s been picking buckshot out of his tail on the issue), Dean is the perfect candidate.
    Upper Left, this isn’t a 50-50 country. It’s more like a 45-45-10 country. Dean should start with 45 percent support — faithful Democrats who rallied around Clinton in ’92 and ’96 and Gore in ’00. But he decided that he is the biggest guy in the party and has alienated those moderates who supported Clinton-Gore, calling the DLC the Republican wing of the Democratic party and dissing the Clinton administration. Howard obviously doesn’t play well with other children. And he’s already threatened to turn his back on the nominee if it isn’t him.
    A big part of voting is finding somebody you wouldn’t mind having a beer with, somebody whose company you’d like. Dean comes across frosty and humorless. It looks he has to muster all of his willpower just to smile in the debates. And his performance in those are pedantic and bland.
    As for his endorsements, Gore and Bradley are yesterday’s news. And Tom Harkin is the day before yesterday’s news.
    Any of the nominees will be able to turn out the base because we all see the danger in another Bush term. But I don’t see how Howard Dean is going to do a much better job rallying affluent voters than Clark, Kerry, Edwards or Gephardt. Any I certainly don’t see how Dean can compete in Florida, Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri or any other Southern state.
    I like Howard Dean. There’s a lot that he says that the Democratic party should listen to. But he simply can’t win. And four more years of Bush means a Supreme Court that will overturn Roe v. Wade, ballooning deficits as far as the eye can see, more children going without health care, Medicaid and Medicare under attack, and even more bloodshed overseas, so it is the Dean supporters who need to pull their heads out of the sand.

  6. William Gadea on

    I don’t think we need to make a big dent in the South, but if like Gore, we don’t win ANY Southern states, then there is no room for error anywhere else. It becomes hard to come up with a scenario where we could win without sweeping the big industrial states: Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan. Doable but difficult. Florida, Arkansas, and maybe Louisiana are winnable but — and I don’t want to sound like a one-note Johnny here — we need the right candidate.

  7. Dave C on

    For what it’s worth, here are my concerns about Dean’s electability.
    1) Foreign Policy- It’s not his views that are the problem, it’s that he doesn’t have experience. Yes, voters didn’t seem to care that Clinton and GWB had no experience, but after 9/11 and a year and half in Iraq, I think the voters you describe in 2 &3 of your post will value it more.
    2) Taxes- I think middle class taxes matter to affluent swing voters as well as working class ones. I know it totally oversimplifies the issue, but the Repubs use the “he’s just gonna raise your taxes” line pretty effectively. I hear Dean may change his position here, but to get my support he’s gotta show me what his plan is and prove he can sell it well.
    Those are my big worries. I’m not sure what to think of the whole South thing. I think some of it may be that since the GOP strategy is to go after our base, we should go after their’s to distract them. But I don’t know if that’s necessarily the right strategy.

  8. Upper left on

    Thanks for responding. I don’t entirely disagree with you. I think gut reactions do matter. But simply comparing opinions w/o actually trying to analyze the situation tends to lead us in circles.
    What has ticked me off over the past couple of months is the number of people here and particularly in the media, who seem to take it as a given that Dean would be a disaster for the Dems.
    These folks rarely back up their opinions with any attempt at real analysis. Typically, they say he is not from the south, he opposed the war, or he is “too liberal.” Then when you point out that this election is unlikely to be decided in the south; most of the country actually agrees that we should have gone after Al Qaida rather than Saddam; and that his record is quite centerist; they respond with ad hominem arguments like he is “too angry,” or “I don’t like the way he looks on TV.”
    If we are going to judge the candidates on “likability” and amorphous personal characteristecs, then, wouldn’t it make sense to say that, “based on number of small donors, turnout for stump speeched, and number of volunteers, Dean is “prefered” by most voters?”
    Come on folks, I am not asking you to agree with me, but I am challenging all of us to think through the validity of the conventional wisdom.

  9. William Gadea on

    UpperLeft, you take pride in approaching this question with rigor… and rigor is often a good thing. But I think your thinking on this matter is not fuzzy enough.
    I was phone-banking today. (You will not be surprised to hear that it was for Clark.) I spoke with an undecided voter in New Hampshire and asked him what was the issue that was most important for him. You know what he said? “I want someone who I won’t mind seeing on television for the next four years.” This guy is a majority in our country, though most wouldn’t be as honest as he was. You can match issues to demographics all you want; its going to come down to a lot of very subjective, gut calls.
    This is probably an unpopular thing to say on a site dedicated to quantative analysis, but let’s face it. This game is more art than science.

  10. Upper left on

    Electability is, IMO, the most important issue.
    Who should we nominate, and how can that candidate win?
    I think there is a tremendous amount of fuzzy thinking going on with this issue. People seem to confuse opinion with analysis. We don’t have to agree, but we should try to lay out coherent arguments rather than just leading cheers for our favorite candidates.
    Here is my take: In order to talk intelligently about electability, we need to break it down into smaller pieces. Electability has four major components:
    1) Ability to turn-out the base: In the current 50-50 political environment, ability to turn out your base is, IMO, the single most important component of electability. News flash: Karl Rove agrees with me. The Rep. have spent four years attending to their base. Dems have blown off our own base for years. Dean vs. Clark: I think most observers would agree that Dean’s rhetoric and his organization are better positioned to turn out the Dem. base.
    2) Ability to appeal to more highly educated, more affluent swing voters: These are the professional and technical workers discussed as a crucial part of the new Dem. majority in the EDM book. These folks mostly live in the suburbs and the revitalizing cores of the ideapoloses identified in EDM. Dean vs. Clark: Dean’s positions, record, and personal history make him the representative of this group. These voters are predominately fiscally conservative and socially liberal, just as is Dean’s record and his positions. I don’t think anyone can seriously argue that Clark will do better with this group.
    3) Appealing to working class swing voters: these are the so-called Reagan democrats whose economic interests tend to align them with the Dems, but whose distaste for taxes and social conservatism make them susceptible to Republican appeals. Dean vs Clark: this is the group with whom Clark is likely to have the advantage. I recognize that these voters are probably more naturally comfortable and naturally trusting of Clark. However, Dean has positioned himself so that two of the wedge issues the Reps. usually use with this group are largely off the table: the death penalty and gun control. Yes, Dean is susceptible on the civil unions bill, but so are all of the Dems. Clark’s position is nearly identical to Dean’s. Furthermore, polling data indicate that the public is evenly divided on the question of civil unions (as opposed to the large plurality that opposes gay marriage), which calls into question the usefulness of this as a broadcast issue for the general election (most likely Rove will quietly use this issue to stir up the Christian right).
    More importantly, Dean’s entire campaign is infused with populist themes that are simple, direct, and I believe highly effective in appealing to this group. If you have read my other posts, you know that I have been arguing that Dean’s bottom-up populism is as important as his left-right positioning. Many of the candidates seem to be parroting Dean’s populist rhetoric, but none of them are nearly as effective as Dean. The fact that Dean’s entire campaign is infused with these themes makes them seem authentic rather than opportunistic.
    I believe that Clark’s percieved advantage with this group is largely hypothetical at this point. Until Clark demonstrates clear advantages in the polling data with this sub-group, I believe we should all be careful about making assumptions. To the extent that this percieved advatage actually exists, I would hypothesize that it is most significant in the south and the border states. This region, with the possible exceptions of FL, AR, MO, and possibly LA, is beyond democratic reach regardless of who the Dems nominate.
    The argument that the Dems have to nominate a southerner in order to have a chance misses the the entire “emerging democratic majority” argument. The real battlegrounds in this race against a fairly popular, southern, born-again, incumbant are not in the south (outside of FL). The battleground is in the industrial midwest, and in the Southwest with its rapidly growing hispanic vote.
    I will grant Clark a slight edge in this category, but for the reasons outlined above, I don’t think Clark’s advantage is as significant as the CW would imply.
    4) Ability to bring new voters into the process: I would agree with Ruy that there are serious limitations to this stategy, but in a closs election it does have the potential to make a significant difference. Speaking mathmatically, if a highly polarized Dean-Bush match-up takes place, it is concievable that turn-out could increase by 5%. If Dean wins a 60-40 split of these new voters, that translates into a full percentage point of the entire electorate. That could swing the popular vote, more likely, it could swing a couple of close states.
    Again, in the Dean vs. Clark comparison, I think most observers would agree that Dean is more likely to appeal to new and young voters. His populist appeal has the potential to reach many alienated and marginal voters.
    CONCLUSION: I would give Dean the clear edge in three of the four categories. I doubt that Clark’s edge with the fourth group outways Dean’s advantage with the other three.
    I don’t think this analysis is ironclad. I do think it is reasonable. I will be very interested to hear what others think, and I hope that we can have a respectful discussion of these very important issues.
    Finally, I am curious to hear the thoughts of the Clark supporters, regarding the fact that Gore, Bradley, and now Harkin have endorsed Dean. Dean also leads in super-delegates. Do you think these people are all stupid? Do you think they are all lemmings? Or are you ready to admit that there is room for intelligent Democrats to argue that Dean is our strongest candidate.
    Ruy, I would especially appreciate hearing your response. You are obviously a Clark supporter, and your posts going back to July indicate that, while not dogmatic about it, you largely agree that Clark is more electable. However, you have not really explained your position. I think now would be a good time.


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