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Whither the Center in 2006?

by Ruy Teixeira

A lot happened in 2005 to shift the political landscape against Bush and the GOP, a fact that has been partially obscured by a modest rise in Bush’s poll ratings right at the end of the year (for an excellent analysis of the magnitude of this bump, see this post by political scientist Charles Franklin on his website, Political Arithmetik).

CBS News has nicely summarized much of the evidence for this shift in a year-end polling review on their website. Here are some relevant excerpts:

President Bush experienced a loss of public confidence on many key fronts in 2005, according to an analysis of the polling conducted by CBS News throughout the year. He began the year (and his second term in office) with lower job approval ratings than other modern two-term presidents did, and his approval rating continued to drop during the year.

Several policy issues no doubt contributed to this drop. The war in Iraq was volunteered by Americans who disapproved of Bush as the main reason they did so. But there was also the attempted Social Security overhaul and the Bush Administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina -- areas in which the public expressed doubts about the President’s leadership and proposals.

Bush’s 49% approval rating in January 2005 was lower than Nixon’s 51% in January 1973, and much lower than Clinton’s 60%, Reagan’s 62%, and Eisenhower’s 74% at that point in their presidencies.

But that 49% approval rating was the highest rating the President received in all of 2005. By April, a majority of the public disapproved of the job he was doing. Bush finished the year with a 40% approval rating in December, an improvement from his low point in late October, when only 35% approved.

The President also began the year with mediocre ratings on handling foreign policy, the economy, and the situation in Iraq. He received his most positive evaluation on handling the war on terrorism, which had historically been his strongest area.

In January, just two in five Americans approved of President Bush’s handling of foreign policy, the economy and Iraq. And like his overall approval rating, those numbers continued to drop as the year progressed. By December, 36% approved of his handling of foreign policy and the war in Iraq, and 38% approved of his handling of the economy. Not even half approved of his handling of the war on terrorism -- down from 56% at the start of the year......

By December, 28% wanted all troops out of Iraq immediately, and another three in 10 wanted troop levels decreased. 58% said they wanted a time-table for troop withdrawal -- something the President said he would not do.

Polls conducted late in the year showed that most Americans felt the President did not have a clear plan for victory in Iraq or for getting troops out, and most were uneasy about his handling of the war.

A September CBS News Poll showed that President Bush's response to Hurricane Katrina met with disapproval -- only 38% approved, while 58% disapproved.

Many felt that the President had acted too slowly in responding to the disaster that followed the storm.

There was more fallout for the President as a result of the disaster. In that September poll, just 48% of Americans thought the President had strong qualities of leadership – the lowest number ever for the President in this poll. (In the weeks after the attacks of September 11th, 2001, 83% of Americans said the President had strong qualities of leadership.) Later in September, 53% thought the President was a strong leader.

Moreover, just 32% expressed “a lot” of confidence in the President’s ability to handle a crisis. This was a sharp change from four years ago when, in the weeks after the 9/11 attacks, 66% expressed “a lot” of confidence in Bush’s ability to handle a crisis.

Many Americans were skeptical that the Social Security system was in the “crisis” the Administration claimed, and 56% felt Americans were being told it was in a crisis so political leaders could make the changes they wanted to the program.

There was little enthusiasm for the President’s proposal to change the current system. Skepticism about the Bush plan remained even while many Americans (especially those under 30) doubted whether the Social Security system would provide them with retirement benefits.

Throughout the year, the public was divided as to whether allowing personal investment accounts was a good idea -- but 70% were against such accounts if it meant their benefits would be cut.

Americans’ unease with the President’s plan to add individual investment accounts to Social Security continued during the early part of the year. By July, the President was receiving mostly negative assessments of his handling of the issue.

I realize this is a lengthy quote, but the whole piece is dead-on and I could easily have quoted more. I urge you to read the entire article.

So that’s our context as we move into 2006. Will this shift in the political landscape against the GOP result in a serious upheaval in this year’s congressional elections? E.J. Dionne captures the way this might happen in his January 3 column, where he points out that “[C]onservatives can't win elections on their own. They need moderate votes, and significant support outside the old Confederacy. Bush's carefully cultivated image as a strong, trustworthy leader in the war on terrorism brought around enough middle-of-the road voters to create the Republican monolith that is now our national government.” And, Dionne goes on to say, that alliance with the political center has been blown up by Terri Schiavo, Social Security and, especially, the war on Iraq which has “struck at the heart of Bush’s appeal to the center”.

Exactly. It’s all about the center and if Bush and the GOP can’t improve their performance there, there will indeed be a real upheaval this November. Think for a moment about how badly the GOP has been faring among independents in recent polls. The most gaudy reading was in the November Newsweek poll, where Democrats led by 26 points among independents in the generic congressional contest. But December readings haven’t been much better for the GOP among these centrist voters.

In an early December CBS News poll, Democrats led among independents by 14 points among independents. In a DLC poll conducted around the same time, Democrats led among independents by 20 points. And in the NPR poll conducted in mid-December, Democrats led by 17 points among this group.

Now check out Democrat leads among independents in actual congressional (off-year) elections, as captured by exit polls. As far back as I can get data (1982), the Democrats have never had a lead among independents larger than 4 points, a level they managed to achieve in both 1986 and 1990. Indeed, since 1990, they’ve lost independents in every congressional election: by 14 points in 1994; by 4 points in 1998; and by 2 points in 2002. So, even leaving questions of relative partisan turnout aside (and I suspect the Democrats will do better, not worse, in this respect in 2006), the implications of a strong Democratic lead among independents in this year’s election are huge. It could be a whole new political ballgame.....and maybe a whole new Congress. Stay tuned.