Friday, May 19, 2006

Bush approval up in CNN 36%, CBS 35%

President Bush's approval ratings have moved up in two polls taken after his Monday evening address on immigration. A CBS News poll taken 5/16-17/06 found approval at 35%, disapproval at 60%. That is a 4 percentage point increase in approval since CBS' previous poll on 5/4-8/06. A CNN poll also conducted 5/16-17/06 found approval at 36% and disapproval at 57%, a 2 percentage point increase from their 5/5-7/06 poll. With the addition of these polls, my trend estimate is revised up to 32.8% from 32.05% as of polling through 5/15. (This shift doesn't mean that the trend is now up. Rather it means that based on ALL the polling through 5/17 we should estimate approval at 32.8% instead of 32.05%. Only if the shift continues for several new polls will we see the estimate turn up, as it did, for example, back in November. But it takes about 6-10 polls before such a change can be confirmed.)

The margin of error for the change in the CBS polls is 4.6%, so this 4% gain falls just inside that margin. For CNN the margin for the change is 4.2%, so their 2% gain is not close to statistical significance. However, I've warned before that we should not be too focused on statistical significance in changes over short periods. The real issues will be whether other polls also pick up this upturn and if they do whether the upturn is sustained.

(For the geeks, these margins are for the significance of a difference of independent proportions, so the formula is 2*sqrt(var(poll1)+var(poll2)), where var() is the variance for each poll. Var() is p(1-p)/n, where p is proportion approve, n is sample size. The new CBS has only 636 respondents so that margin is a bit larger than CNN's.)

Despite the lack of statistical significance, there is a good reason to expect some upturn following Monday's speech. Presidential addresses give would-be supporters a set of reasons to approve. The president states his case in the most persuasive form his speech writers are able to craft. Those predisposed to like the president (co-partisans and ideological fellow travellers) are generally accepting of his arguments. The upshot should generally be some increase in approval unless at the same time he alienates his partisan opponents further.

But this week also gives us a clear example of the problems with attempts to influence the public. Elite reaction also matters, and this week many GOP House members and other conservative opinion makers have been swift to attack the president's proposals. Here in Wisconsin it was striking to read the comments of Congressman James Sensenbrenner (R-5th CD), the chair of the House Judiciary committee. For a president struggling to regain support it is hard when your own troops are shooting at you. If co-partisans receive negative messages from trusted sources at the same time they are processing the president's positive message, the result is certainly a dampening of whatever gains the speech might have produced. Since it takes time for the criticisms to spread through the public, this will have more influence on later polls as compared to these two taken in the two days after the address.

While readers of this blog are obviously an opinionated group, it is worth emphasizing that for most citizens politics remains fairly distant from everyday experience and concerns. That means that it matters a lot how elites package messages and whether the sources of those messages are united or divided in their views. Immigration is an excellent example of this. While many members of the House, such as Tom Tancredo (R-CO 6th CD) have lead the campaign against illegal immigration, most citizens don't have firm opinions on this issue in the absence of elite stimulus. And citizens aren't that concerned with immigration (illegal or not) in the absence of elites telling them it is important. Contrast that with the war in Iraq and the economy which are of lasting concern. In the figure below I plot the "Most important problem facing the nation today" from CBS News polls from 11/18-21/04 through 5/16-17/06.

Compare the trend in immigration and social security with those of Iraq, the economy and gas prices. Iraq has consistently remained high. The economy is high, yet is slowly trending down in response to a solid economy, showing that this measure does change in response to the real world. And concern over gas spikes up in obvious response to sudden gas price hikes.

In contrast, in the absence of elite leadership, immigration and social security remain peripheral concerns for the public. President Bush's social security reform effort in early 2005 only managed to raise the issue to a 6% most important problem rating. The immigration issue has been under 5% until April 2006. Now nothing significant changed about the number of illigal immigrants between March and April. Their role in the economy did not shift. Rather what happened was that elites began a debate on the issue. Elected officials, news writers, opinion writers and our friends on talk radio (and the blogs!) began to debate the issue. And the public responded in a predictable way. With the support of elite debate, the MIP rating for immigration has climbed to 12% in the latest CBS News poll.

But that 12% means that most people still haven't seriously thought about illegal immigration. The initial impulse of most respondents is actually pretty close to the President's position: some form of guest worker program is approved by 61%-36%. Allowing illegals who have been here 5 years to stay if they pay a fine, learn english, have no criminal record and pay back taxes is favored 77%-19% (though note the lack of "become citizens" in the question wording.) And a solid majority favors sending the National Guard to the border: 62%-32%. Except for the Guard, partisan divisions on these questions are quite muted. All these results are from the CBS poll. Time polls from December, January and March (before the debate heated up) found similar percentages with somewhat different question wording on guest workers and a chance to "earn citizenship" for long-term resident illegals.

So I think President Bush has in fact taken positions that are well supported by the public at large and among Republican citizens as well, despite what some GOP House members say. That leads me to think that the current tick up in approval in CNN and CBS may in fact represent an actual positive response to the President's Monday address, even though the polls did not change to a statistically significant degree. I also think this is an area where presidential leadership might affect public opinion (and approval might improve in turn as a result.) However, it is hard to see how that happens with a GOP House that is so bitterly divided over an issue that a majority of the public (and of Repubican citizens) favors. I expect we'll see further polarization of opinion in the public, reflecting that elite divide. (And don't forget, many pro-labor Democrats have a problem with immigration as well. That is another reason why elite leadership sould be expected to matter on this issue-- it doesn't fall neatly into Rep vs. Dem.)

Click here to go to Table of Contents