« Economic Interests and the Democratic Party: A Reply | Main | 'New Ideas' Over-rated as Key to Election Wins »

Bush’s Speech Fails to Stop His Slide in the Polls

On June 28, Bush delivered a primetime speech intended to pump up support for the Iraq war and, just as important, pump up his sliding overall poll numbers, which have been hurt severely by by the continuing violence in Iraq.

It does not appear he succeeded. First, let’s review where Bush was before the speech to get a sense of just how the steep the hill was he needed to climb and then we’ll see how far he got up that hill. Here’s an excerpt from a USA Today story about a Gallup poll conducted on the eve of Bush’s speech:

Just one in three Americans now say the United States and its allies are winning the war, according to a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll taken Friday through Sunday [June 24-26]. That is a new low, down 9 percentage points since February. Half say neither side is winning.....

By a record 61%-37%, those surveyed say the president doesn't have a clear plan for handling the situation in Iraq.

Bush's job-approval rating has suffered, too. His approval rating is 45%, equaling the lowest of his presidency. At 53%, his disapproval rating has reached a new high.....

....51% want a timetable set and followed for removing troops from Iraq regardless of the situation there. There is also growing skepticism about the president's core argument that the Iraq war is a crucial part of protecting Americans from terrorists:

• For the first time, a plurality of Americans, by 50%-47%, sees the war in Iraq as a separate action from the war on terrorism.

• By 46%-43%, a plurality says the war in Iraq has made the U.S. less safe from terrorism.

By 53%-46%, Americans say the United States made a mistake in sending troops to Iraq. That's the highest level of discontent since the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib prison scandals last summer....

Quite a hill to climb! And that’s just the Iraq issue. The same poll shows his approval rating on the economy at 41 percent approval/55 percent disapproval; on energy policy at 36/53; on health care policy at 34/59 (his lowest ever); and on Social Security at 31/64 (also his lowest Gallup rating ever). Even his rating on handling terrorism is mired in the mid-50s (currently it is 55 percent).

The Social Security data in the poll are particularly unfavorable for the administration. As the lead from the Gallup report on these data puts it:

The news for President George W. Bush on Social Security is not good. His approval ratings on Social Security are the worst they have been all year, and more Americans have faith in the Democrats than in the Republicans to deal with the issue. A majority of Americans continue to oppose private investment accounts -- Bush's core idea for addressing the Social Security system. And while a majority of Americans acknowledge Bush has proposed a Social Security plan, fewer describe it as a clear plan.

The latest ABC Mews/Washington Post poll, also released right before Bush's speech, underscored the depth of the challenge he faces on the Iraq issue. The ABC News report on the poll notes:

....Recriminations against his administration have jumped, with a majority for the first time saying it "intentionally misled" the public in going to war, and nearly three-quarters saying it underestimated the challenges involved.

A record 57 percent also now say the administration intentionally exaggerated its evidence that pre-war Iraq possessed nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. Views such as these cut to the administration's basic credibility and competence, vital commodities as Bush tries to turn public opinion in a more favorable direction.

The report further notes some very interesting information about Bush's overall approval rating:

Bush's overall position isn't enviable. Not only do 51 percent of Americans disapprove of his job performance, a record 40 percent disapprove "strongly" (compared with 27 percent who strongly approve). That exceeds career-high strong disapproval for his two immediate predecessors, President Clinton (33 percent strongly disapproved in fall 1994, shortly before his party lost control of Congress) and Bush's father (34 percent in summer 1992, shortly before he lost re-election) (emphasis added).

In light of these data, given that Bush chose to give a speech that simply re-iterated standard administration rationales for the Iraq occupation, did not address credibility issues and steadfastly refused to provide any specifics about how and when the administration would successfully conclude the occupation, it's hardly surprising that Bush failed to move the public opinion needle much in his favor.

Even a Gallup flash poll of actual speech-watchers, who were heavily Republican (a 27 point Republican lead in party ID!), showed only modestly positive movement in Bush's direction on the war. And among the general public, there was very little movement at all. Gallup report on their post-speech national poll of adults observes:

In his speech, the president presented his arguments for staying the course in Iraq, saying it was essential for U.S. security. But the poll suggests that he changed few people's minds on the issue. Some of the questions showed slightly more positive views of the war, but the differences between the public's views now and what Gallup measured on the weekend before Bush's speech are small and within the polls' margins of error.

Bush's overall approval rating barely budged either: it climbed all the way from 45 percent to 46 percent in the Gallup poll. And a Zogby poll conducted around the same time found Bush's approval rating dropping to 43 percent from 44 percent before the speech.

After the speech, the Washington Post carried an interesting article by Peter Baker and Dan Balz about the administration's apparent public opinion strategy. According to Baker and Balz, the administration has decided, buttressed by the academic work of two political scientists serving as advisors, Peter Feaver and Christopher Gelpi of Duke University, that the key thing is to shore up public confidence in winning, because that prospective belief is most important to maintaining support for the war effort.

Supposedly that's what the government did wrong during the Vietnam War--started showing doubt that the US could actually win the war. The Bush administration apparently believes that simply by being resolute and uncompromising and betraying not the slightest scintilla of doubt about the war, past, present and future, that it can keep up public support and successfully bring the war to a conclusion.

Well, maybe. But even if it's true that public confidence in a war's winnability is key, it doesn't follow that simply insisting that the war is winnable and being won will convince the public that's so, in the face of actual facts on the ground that appear to contradict that assertion. That may be what the Bush administration wants to believe, but believing it doesn't make it true.

Moreover, if you read Feaver's and Gelpi's work a bit more carefully, it becomes clear that the Bush administration is deriving more comfort from their work than they should. Here's their basic thesis from their paper, "Iraq the Vote: Retrospective and Prospective Foreign Policy Judgments, Candidate Choice, and Casualty Tolerance."

We show that prospective judgments of the likelihood of success in Iraq and retrospective judgments of whether the war in Iraq was right are significant determinants of both vote choice and casualty tolerance. The prospective judgment of success is key in predicting casualty tolerance, while retrospective judgment of whether the war was right takes precedence in determining vote choice.(emphasis added).

In plain English, that means that, leaving aside the question of supporting the ongoing war effort, if people conclude the war was wrong and a bad idea to begin with, they want to vote against the party behind the war. What are people concluding right now? That the war was wrong and a bad idea. Uh-oh! Someone better call Karl Rove and let him in on the bad news.