« Sharing Blame for Partisan Rancor | Main | More Hispanics, More Democratic »

Bush’s First Sub-40 Approval Rating

By Ruy Teixeira

In late June, I remarked:

If present trends continue, it will not be long before Bush receives his first sub-40 overall approval rating, a traditional marker of an incumbent administration in serious trouble.

Well, it's here. In the latest American Research Group (ARG) poll, Bush's overall approval rating is down to 36 percent, with 58 percent disapproval. This result is importantly driven by Bush's relatively low rating among Republican identifiers (77 percent). As I also observed in late June:

Bush's approval rating among Republicans has fallen in recent months from around 90 percent to around 85 percent. It is entirely possible it will decline further if the difficulties of the Bush administration continue to deepen. Certainly, there is no sound reason to suppose Republican identifiers will somehow be immune from overall political trends.

Bush's 77 percent rating among Republicans suggests that attrition in Bush's approval rating among this group is indeed continuing. If so, we are likely to observe more sub-40 Bush approval ratings in the near future. Already, other public polls have come very close to breaking this barrier. The latest Ipsos-Associated Press and Newsweek polls have Bush's rating at 42 percent, the latest Quinnipiac and Survey USA fifty state polls have his rating down to 41 percent and, of course, the most recent Gallup poll has his rating right at 40 percent.

The reasons for Bush's current low ratings are not hard to discern. First and foremost is probably Iraq and its increasingly vexed relationship to the war on terror. In the Newsweek poll, Bush's approval rating on Iraq is down to a shockingly low 34 percent, with 61 percent disapproval. Half the public now thinks we are losing ground rather than making progress (40 percent) in our efforts to establish security and democracy in Iraq. And a staggering 64 percent now believe the Iraq war has not made Americans safer from terrorism, compared to just 28 percent who believe it has.

No doubt related to the harsh judgements that the public is forming on the Iraq war, views on Bush's character-his other strong suit along with his stewardship of the war on terror-continue to erode. In the Ipsos-Associated Press poll, more now say he is dishonest (50 percent) than say he's honest (48 percent). And a clear majority (56 percent) now say he can be described as arrogant. Dishonest and arrogant. Not exactly the characteristics Americans are typically looking for in a president.

And let's not forget the economy. In the ARG poll, Bush's approval rating on the economy is down to 33 percent, with 61 percent disapproval-the worst I've seen in this or any other public poll. Apparently, the public gives little credit to Bush for recent improvements that have shown up in some aggregate economic statistics, but assign him considerable blame for rising gas prices and health care costs, a poor job situation, sluggish to nonexistent wage growth and a generalized sense of economic insecurity.

As the most recent Gallup report on public views of the economy puts it:

Americans, on average, continue to believe that economic conditions in the United States are getting worse, not better. Only a little more than a third are willing to rate the economy as "excellent" or "good." A majority says it is a bad time to find a quality job. And about a third of Americans tell us that some aspect of the economy is the most important problem facing the country today.

In none of these instances are there signs of a sustained recovery in consumer confidence. In most cases, the public's views on the economy remain more depressed than they were at the beginning of this year or on average last year.

All this on top of Bush's debacle on Social Security, where the public soundly rejected his privatization plan and now gives him approval ratings in this area that just barely break 30 percent in most polls.

This can reasonably be described as a target-rich environment for the Democrats as we move into 2006. As the latest Democracy Corps memo summarizes the situation:

There is every reason to believe America is ready for a change election in 2006-already evident in the Democrats' remarkable performance this past Tuesday in the contest for Ohio-2, one of the most Republican congressional seats in the country. Voters were diverted from voting for change in 2004, but the sentiment now is much stronger, with only 41 percent consistently saying they want to continue in Bush's direction. Only 37 percent of all voters think the country is headed in the right direction, falling to 29 percent among independents.

But the memo also notes:

[The Democrats'] own image has not improved and most of the gain in Congressional vote margin has come from the Republicans' decline. That has created a lot of dislodged voters not yet enamored with the Democrats and a lot of protest and change voters that the Democrats can still pick up. Democrats are still at 48 percent but need to push over 50 percent. Fortunately, over one in ten voters are "winnable" for the Democrats-ready to switch their vote and hostile to the Republicans, but not yet voting Democratic.

The memo goes on to detail the groups where the Democrats appear to have already made considerable progress (white rural voters, white mainline Protestants, and white postgraduates) and those groups where winnable voters for the Democrats are most common (white older noncollege voters, midwestern voters, unmarried women, white seniors, and devout white Catholics). This analysis can be fruitfully read in conjunction with another Democracy Corps memo on "The Cultural Divide and the Challenge of Winning Back Rural and Red State Voters," which summarizes the results of focus groups held among rural voters in Wisconsin and Arkansas and disaffected Bush voters in Kentucky and Colorado. These results help bring into focus the difficulties Democrats face winning over voters who don't like where the country is going, but aren't yet sold on the Democrats as an alternative. Here are some key observations from the focus group memo:

[P]articipants' broad dissatisfaction with the country's direction was focused on three issues-the lack of progress or a clear plan in Iraq, a stagnant economy without job security, and skyrocketing health care costs. President Bush and Republicans in Congress were faulted for their lack of effective leadership on these issues and their failure to offer new ideas. . . .

There is no doubt that congressional Democrats start at a disadvantage, with red state and rural voters holding very negative views of the party on a number of fronts-most notably support for big government at the expense of personal responsibility, "moral issues," and security-but the real problem for Democrats is that their elected officials, and by extension their entire party, are perceived as directionless and divided, standing for nothing other than their own personal enrichment. . . .

Democrats are seen as being more on the side of the middle class and working Americans, more in touch with the challenges facing these Americans. However, voters only see this manifested in costly government social programs or political alliances with labor unions and minorities. There is absolutely no sense that Democrats have a viable alternative vision that would truly promote broad economic growth or increased prosperity for working Americans. . . .

The unity Democrats showed in opposing President Bush's Social Security privatization plans was an important first step for a party seen as weak and standing for nothing, although it also served to reinforce the belief among many red state and rural voters that Democrats are quick to oppose Republican initiatives but have no positive agenda of their own.

Quit criticizing so much and have a little bit more of your own direction. Whether it's right or wrong, pick a direction and go. . . . Be on the offense instead of the defense. (Appleton, older non-college men)

The Democrats have opposed these efforts. . . . Well, where is their great idea for protecting jobs? Where is their great idea for lowering health costs? They don't have it. (Appleton, younger non-college women)

They want to point out the issues that go wrong that the Republicans are making. And yet, they don't really have a solution of their own. . . . That's why they don't ever win now. (Little Rock, older non-college women)

The message of these and other findings is straightforward: Democrats can't overcome a cultural divide that advantages the Republicans among contested voters unless those voters have a clear sense of what Democrats stand for. Given that they don't, it's no wonder voters as a whole give Democrats only trivial advantages on the economy generally and in key areas like creating economic security and providing opportunity. Moreover, the image of the party continues to lag the Republicans on critical attributes like optimism, prosperity and individuals making the most of their talents.

And, on the key issue of Iraq, Democrats are famously divided on what to call for, despite the public's increased discontent about the war and increased interest in a timetable for withdrawal. The failure of Democrats to coalesce around a specific plan and timetable for withdrawal seems likely to limit their potential gains from this issue, as well as reinforce their basic problem of appearing to not know what they stand for.