December 7, 2005
Is the Tide Turning?

By Charlie Cook

The media, including this column, have been quick to point out the continued declines in President Bush's job-approval ratings this year, so it is only fair to flag what might be a bottoming out and possible uptick in his ratings.

A new Time magazine poll of 1,004 registered voters conducted Nov. 29-Dec. 1 (margin of error +/-3) found the president's approval rating to be 41 percent, with a disapproval rating of 53 percent. While it is technically true that the latest approval rating is one point lower than in Time's previous survey, that poll was taken Sept. 7-8, and in the ensuing period the president's approval numbers had very clearly dropped much lower.

What is important is that this new Time poll is the third major poll in a row indicating a 40-plus percent approval rating for President Bush. A Nov. 29-30 Fox News poll showed a 42 percent approval, while a Cook Political Report/RT Strategies survey pegged it at 41-percent in a Nov. 17-20 poll. From Oct. 28 until Nov. 15, only one out of 12 major national surveys gave the president an approval rating of 40 percent or higher, and his average approval rating was 37.5 percent.

While the difference between 11 out of 12 under 40 -- averaging 37.5 percent -- and three in a row just over 40 -- averaging 41 percent -- is not sufficient to declare that something is happening, it's a tip off that at the very least, Bush has stabilized his situation, at least temporarily, and recouped a bit of lost ground.

To be sure, a 41- or 42-percent job-approval rating is a bad one, and of the post-World War II presidents who were both elected and re-elected to office, only Richard Nixon has been lower in a second term, but Ronald Reagan dipped to 43 percent during Iran-Contra and managed to finish with a very respectable approval rating of 63 percent. More importantly, while the difference between 41 and, say, 39 percent is only two percentage points, that difference is much more significant than the difference between 47 and 49 percent or between 55 and 57 percent, in that it is somewhat akin to the way retailers like to price products at 95 or 99 cents, because paying say $199.95 is better than $200.00 -- at least in consumer psychology. Jumping the 40-percent mark represents the same psychology.

President Bush's challenges remain formidable. It's a decent bet that around 70 percent of the president's current approval problems are related to the war in Iraq. Without substantial improvement to the situation in Iraq, or at least the public's perception and the president's handling of it, no meaningful recovery in Bush's numbers are possible and voters will be unwilling to assess his performance on much of anything other than the war.

It is hard for even strong economic numbers, such as last week's announcement that the economy grew at a fabulous rate of 4.3 percent in the third quarter, to make a real difference for the president if the focus remains on Iraq (the GDP growth announcement came the morning after the first of three nights of interviewing for the Time Poll).

And it would be a mistake to underestimate the intensity of opposition that has developed to President Bush. Both the Cook Political Report/RT Strategies Poll and the Nov. 7-9 Associated Press/Ipsos survey not just measured his approval and disapproval, but asked people whether they strongly approved (or disapproved) or only somewhat approved (or disapproved). Those surveys found the strong disapproval to be a whopping 43 percent -- the AP/Ipsos poll had the strong disapproval to be 42 percent in their previous month's poll. By comparison, that strong disapproval was just 35 percent in both the June and July AP/Ipsos polls and began the year at 30 percent. The strong opposition has increased by over a third and almost a half in much less than a year. Watch for the next AP/Ipsos and Cook Political Report/RT Strategies polls in the next couple of weeks to see if that intensity has waned.

It will take a few more polls to firmly establish what is going on here. If, say, two out of the next three or three out of the next five national polls show approval ratings of 40 percent or higher, than it means that there really has been a bottoming out and that a few points have been recouped. If in the next couple of weeks we start seeing several 43- or 44- or 45-percent approval ratings, that would signal some recovery is taking place. We haven't seen a 43 percent or better rating since the end of September.

Most importantly, pay attention to the averages of all the major national polls, and do not succumb to the temptation of cherry picking and believing only the surveys that report what you would like to see happen. It's not only intellectually dishonest, but also terribly misleading.

One handy way of keeping tabs is the "Polls" feature on Realclearpolitics.com, which lists results chronologically and provides an average of all the recent major national polls, though I only watch those conducted by live people interviewing respondents and ignore the computer-interviewed Rasmussen Poll.

Charlie Cook's "Off To The Races" is published each Tuesday by National Journal. For more information about National Journal Group's publications, go to http://www.nationaljournal.com/about/

Charlie Cook

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