Mr. 29% Is Back

I recall reading last week that some Republicans were quite upset that Bush addressed the nation about Iraq in prime time. After all the careful choreography that went into building up General Petraeus as a credible mouthpiece for the surge, here was an unpopular president going on TV to defend an unpopular war and many feared it would be to the detriment of the 2008 candidates who are trying to balance support for the war with criticism of the way Bush has managed it; here Bush reminded the country Bush = the war, you support one, you support the other.

Despite the concerns, Bush of course went on the air anyway, perhaps emboldened by the slight uptick in approval he experienced in August and early September (AP showed him as high as 35%, CNN at 36% and Fox at 37%.) As you can see from Pollster's trend estimate chart, his job approval rating has been on an upward trajectory, with a current trend estimate at 33.3%.

With this in mind, take a look at the three job approval ratings that were registered in polls taken during and since September 13, the date of his prime time address (h/t Polling Report):

CBS (9/14-16)
29%

Zogby/Reuters (9/13-9/16)
29%

Pew (9/12-9/16)  
31%

It's been a while since Bush has hit a new low in a poll so you'll be pleased to know that this trend is over as well. Zogby's 29% is the lowest approval rating Bush has ever gotten in that poll (his previous worst was 30% in March.)

In fairness, the Pew and CBS polls have registered low numbers for Bush pretty consistently so the real test of whether Bush has experienced a statistically significant drop post-speech is if his approval ratings in the next CNN and Fox polls drop from their meteoric mid-to-upper 30s heights. But at the very least, we can expect to see Pollster's upward trend estimate arrow level off and the 33.3% drop once these more recent polls are factored in.

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Congressional Dems' Approval Tops Bush's, Congressional GOP's

For all of the talk of President Bush's abysmal approval rating being slightly higher than Congress' abysmal approval rating, the far more important and meaningful comparison to make is the approval rating of Democrats in Congress. The latest Harris Interactive poll (.pdf, via Atrios) does just that, and the numbers look like this:

ApproveDisapprove
Dems in Congress3164
George W. Bush2673
GOP in Congress2176

As you can see from this polling, Congressional Democrats aren't terribly popular these days. In fact, their favorable rating has dropped 10 points since February and 4 points since April. Yet at the same time, Congressional Democrats are more popular than the President and quite a bit more popular than Congressional Republicans, who are about as popular as the plague. Nancy Pelosi's numbers, while having fallen from a high of 38 percent in the poll back in February to 34 percent today, are also significantly higher than those of the President or Republicans in Congress.

There still remains quite a bit of work for Democrats in Congress to do before they are able to regain some of the trust they earned during the lead up to the 2006 midterm elections all the way up through their ascension to the majority in the House and the Senate earlier this year. That said, there's no way for the GOP to spin the fact that the Democrats are significantly more popular than the Republicans, that individual Democratic leaders like Nancy Pelosi are more popular than individual Republican leaders like George W. Bush, and that generally the Democrats are in a stronger position than the Republicans a quarter of the way through the 2008 cycle.

Fox News Poll: Congressional Democrats More Popular Than Bush

Much has been made lately of congress' plummeting approval ratings and for good reason. Not only have they reached historic lows (even lower than 1994 and 2006) but they make George Bush seem popular by comparison.

Newsweek, June 18-19:
Congress: 25%
Bush: 26%

Gallup, June 11-14:
Congress: 24%
Bush: 32%

NBC/WSJ, June 8-11:
Congress: 23%
Bush: 29%

LA Times/Bloomberg, June 7-10
Congress: 27%
Bush: 34%

Many on the left, right and Broder have interpreted this trend as an indictment of the Democrats because a. they hold the majority and b. they promised a lot of change that they just haven't been able to deliver, and therefore, next year, as in years past with record low approval ratings, voters may just throw the Democratic bums out. But what if we actually look at how people rate Democrats in congress vs. the institution as a whole? The latest Fox News poll asks just that and the results tell an entirely different story.

First it should be noted that, as per his trend lately, George Bush receives his lowest rating ever in a Fox News poll: 31%.

As for Congress, rather than asking for an overall approval rating, the Fox poll splits the question by party.  

Do you approve or disapprove of the job Democrats in Congress are doing?
Approve: 36%
Disapprove: 49%

Do you approve or disapprove of the job Republicans in Congress are doing?
Approve: 30%
Disapprove: 56%

In other words, congressional Republicans are the ones who are less popular than Bush, not the Democrats. You got that, Broder?

The net favorability of -13 that Democrats enjoy is no prize but it certainly kicks the ass of the Republicans' -26 and shows that people still perceive Republicans as the problem despite the fact that Democrats hold the majority. But of course that won't stop the NRCC from using congressional approval ratings to argue for a return to Republican power. It's all they have.

Update [2007-6-29 18:22:19 by Todd Beeton]: New CNN/Opinion Research poll concurs:
Fifty-three percent of 907 poll respondents who are registered voters said they would vote for a Democratic candidate for Congress if elections were held today, compared to 41 percent who said they would vote Republican. And 51 percent of the 1,029 respondents said they have a favorable opinion of the Democratic party, with 38 percent reporting an unfavorable opinion. Fifty-three percent said their opinion of the GOP is unfavorable, compared with 36 percent who said it is favorable.
There are also some serious warning signs for Democrats, however, which are consistent with the drop in approval over the past few months as a result of caving on Iraq.
49 percent, said they disapproved of what Democratic leaders in Congress have done since taking over in January. Forty-two percent said they approve...In May, 49 percent of poll respondents approved and 44 percent did not.

[snip]

57 percent said they believe Democratic control of Congress is good for the country, as opposed to 31 percent who said it is not.

In November, the same month midterm elections were held and Democrats assumed control, 67 percent of poll respondents said Democratic control of Congress was good for the nation.

Congressional leaders clearly hope to reverse these trends with their plans to revisit Iraq withdrawal in July:
• Democrats to schedule votes on troops withdrawal from Iraq in July

• Measure would begin withdrawal 120 days after passage

• Senate Majority Reid uncertain if he can overcome GOP objections

• Measure also expected to be added in defense authorization bill

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26 Percent.

The latest numbers in from Newsweek:

In 19 months, George W. Bush will leave the White House for the last time. The latest NEWSWEEK Poll suggests that he faces a steep climb if he hopes to coax the country back to his side before he goes. In the new poll, conducted Monday and Tuesday nights, President Bush's approval rating has reached a record low. Only 26 percent of Americans, just over one in four, approve of the job the 43rd president is doing; while, a record 65 percent disapprove, including nearly a third of Republicans.

The new numbers--a 2 point drop from the last NEWSWEEK Poll at the beginning of May--are statistically unchanged, given the poll's 4 point margin of error. But the 26 percent rating puts Bush lower than Jimmy Carter, who sunk to his nadir of 28 percent in a Gallup poll in June 1979. In fact, the only president in the last 35 years to score lower than Bush is Richard Nixon. Nixon's approval rating tumbled to 23 percent in January 1974, seven months before his resignation over the botched Watergate break-in.

The poll also finds that Americans' views of Congress are generally the same as they are of the President, with 25 percent approving and 63 percent disapproving. However, while Americans are divided along partisan lines when it comes to supporting the President, with Republicans still marginally backing their leader while Democrats and Independents largely do not, Americans across the political spectrum feel the same way about Congress, with between 25 percent and 27 percent of Democrats, Republicans and Independents approving of Congress.

It is important to note that Congress' approval is traditionally much lower than that of the President, so the fact that George W. Bush is liked by roughly as few Americans as is Congress says at least as much about his unpopularity as it does that of Congress. (Read Charles Franklin, who writes, in short, "In this light, while approvals of 35% apiece may be numerically equal, the political implications in light of historical polling are not the same.")

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Bush's Fall is Because of Immigration, Right? Try Iraq

I think I must have watched a little too much cable news in recent weeks because I've kind of settled on the notion that George W. Bush's rather noticeable drop in the polls as of late was a result of the nativist wing of the Republican Party leaving him over his position on immigration reform. Not so, however. Charles Franklin crunches the numbers over at Pollster.com and comes to a different conclusion.

The key period [in the debate over the Iraq War funding bill] was Friday, April 20 through Tuesday, May 1. On April 20, President Bush gave a full defense of his new policy in a speech at East Grand Rapids MI, outlining what was new, what the hopes were and where some success could be seen, while admitting a long road ahead including increased casualties. On Monday, April 23, the President met with General Petraeus, and the same day House and Senate negotiators approved a common bill. The next day, April 24, President Bush gave a final warning to Congress in a South Lawn appearance that again outlined the arguments against a deadline and promised a veto. The House passed the bill on April 25th and the Senate on April 25th. The following Tuesday, May 1, President Bush delivered his promised veto.

So what happened to public opinion? The period from December through mid-April showed surprising stability in approval of President Bush. Despite the change in control of Congress, the new "surge" initiative in Iraq and the subsequent debates about the war, approval of the President remained quite stable, with only momentary wiggles that quickly returned to a stable support of around 34%.

That changed on April 24th. The trend estimate of presidential approval marks a sudden and sharp change on that date. Approval on the 24th was a shade over 34%, as it had been since December. But after that, approval started to decline steadily to the current estimate of 31.9%. That 2.1 point decline may sound small, but it is a significant shift in the trend estimate. Individual polls vary widely around this trend, far more than 2 points, but the mean moves much less, and as the graph above makes clear, hardly moved at all in the December-March period. The sharpness of the change point, and the stability of the subsequent decline, argues that this was a "real" point of change and not just random noise. I'm using the conservative "old blue" estimator here, which is hard to fool about changes in trend. It has taken a while to make up its mind (and mine) that this is a real shift in support, but it and I are now convinced.

That the change occurs in the midst of the war deadline/veto debate could be accidental. But it certainly is a believable moment for opinions to shift. A fundamental problem of inference with change point estimates such as this is that anything that happened around April 24th could also possibly be the cause of this shift in approval. Attorney General Gonzalez testified the previous week, for example, and the President supported him during this week as well. And John McCain announced his presidential campaign. And other stuff happened. All can claim the same coincidental relationship with approval's sudden downward turn. But I'd argue that the debate over the war that week tapped into the most salient divide in American politics this spring and is the more plausible explanation. [emhpasis added, placement of image rearranged]

Franklin notes, as I think it's important to do, that the image of Congress in the eyes of the American public has also been hurt in this period since the debate over funding for the Iraq War heated up. Specifically, Franklin's estimate is that Congress' approval rating has fallen about a point and a half over this period as well.

But looking again at the President, there is real reason to believe Franklin's reading of the data, that Iraq likely played a role in the President's diminishing level of support. Throughout May I highlighted quite a bit of polling (here, here and here) indicating that a significant portion of the Republican base wants out of Iraq, if not now then very soon. It is plausible that this group was willing to continue their faith in the President to follow through with his once stated goal to begin to bring the Iraq War to a close up until he vetoed legislation funding the troops and setting a timeline for the withdrawal of American troops from the country.

One might still argue that immigration -- or Alberto Gonzales, or gas prices or whatever else -- has been at the root of George W. Bush's recent decline in the polls. Certainly, those opposed to any comprehensive immigration reform legislation have been extremely loud, even if their numbers are not particularly large (and, indeed, they're not). But as we get more data, the argument that it has been the President's position and actions on Iraq, not other outside issues or occurrences, becomes more and more believable. And at the least, Democrats on Capitol Hill should at least consider that this is the case when figuring out their next steps in the effort on Capitol Hill to end the Iraq War.

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