Monday, May 15, 2006

Favorability towards President Bush

See the UPDATE at the bottom of the post for a personal approval question that does indeed show approval in the 60% range.

Presidential advisor Karl Rove made a curious statement Monday (5/15) in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute. (More on the speech here, and transcript here.) Rove said
"The polls I believe are the polls that we (...) run--- that get run through the RNC--- and I look at those polls all the time. The American people like this president. His personal approval ratings are in the 60s. Job approval is lower. And what that says to me is that the people like him, they respect him, he is somebody they feel a connection with, but they are just sour right now on the war and that's the way it is going to be. And we will fight our way through." (My transcription based on NPR audio of Karl Rove speaking).
This surprised me because I hadn't seen personal favorablity towards President Bush in the 60% range for some time. When I plot the data above, it is clear that public favorability ratings of the president have suffered somewhat less than his overall job approval, yet both have turned down since January 2005, and favorability is only about 40%, certainly not in the 60s.

Favorability is routinely asked with some variation on the question
"We'd like to get your overall opinion of some people in the news. As I read each name, please say if you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of these people-- or if you have never heard of them. How about George W. Bush" (Gallup wording).
At the beginning of the administration, from January-August of 2001, the favorability rating did run as much as 10% higher than job approval. But in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, job approval outpaced favorability, though both surged considerably. By the start of 2002, favorability and job approval matched each other quite closely. Job approval shows more responsiveness to short term shocks, such as the start of the Iraq War and the capture of Saddam Hussein, but in general the two track very closely through the 2004 election campaign. Only in the aftermath of that campaign does favorability move clearly above job approval again. From January 2005 through November 2005, this pattern remained. When job approval rebounded in late November 2005 through January 2006, the gap narrowed. Since February, both have fallen, though job approval has fallen at a faster rate, reopening the gap between them.

So in general, it has not been the case the President Bush's personal favorability ratings have been markedly higher than his job approval. Only in the first 8 months of the administration, and in the period since January 2005 through the present has this been true. While some differences do now exist, they are not particularly large.

But more puzzling is what Mr. Rove meant by "His personal approval ratings are in the 60s." It appears clear he could not have been refering to the usual favorability ratings, as we can see in the graph above. "The 60s" are far from the current trend in favorability. We might imagine RNC polls that differ somewhat from public poll results, but certainly not by this magnitude. Republican pollsters are among the best in the business and certainly do not routinely produce highly biased results.

There are no other "personal approval" ratings that are commonly published by media or other polling organizations that I am aware of. In the late Clinton administration some polls asked questions aimed at distinguishing approval of Clinton's handling of his job from his personal life. ABC's question was fairly typical:
"Do you approve or disapprove of the way (Bill) Clinton behaves in his personal life?"
Yet this form has not been asked in public polls so far as I've been able to determine since President Bush took office. (Any helpful pointers to items would be welcome.)

It is possible that the RNC polls Mr. Rove referred to ask items aimed at President Bush's personal rectitude, and those might well be expected to run higher. Alas, the RNC is not in the habit of posting their polling results to the web.

So the question I would wish someone to ask Mr. Rove is "which `personal approval' item are you citing", and I'd also like to know if these results are for a sample of adults. If not, then a sample of Republicans or former Bush voters might more plausibly produce favorability ratings as high as the 60s. Given Mr. Rove's concern for rallying supporters, this might be a plausible interpretation of his statement. But the quote is a puzzle without more information.

UPDATE (5/18): An alert reader pointed me to an example of a personal approval item that does indeed reflect Mr. Rove's comment. The GWU Battleground poll is conducted by a partnership of The Tarrance Group (R) and Lake Research Partners (D). Their February 12-15, 2006 poll contains the following interesting item:
Q14. Whether you approve or disapprove of the way George W. Bush is handling his job as President, what is your impression of George W. Bush as a person? Do you approve or disapprove of him?
Approve (strongly+somewhat): 60%
Disapprove(strongly+somewhat): 33%
Unsure: 7%

This is similar to what I suggested might be the case---
It is possible that the RNC polls Mr. Rove referred to ask items aimed at President Bush's personal rectitude, and those might well be expected to run higher. Alas, the RNC is not in the habit of posting their polling results to the web.
Whatever the RNC polls show, at least we have this Battleground poll to clarify the distinction between job approval, the standard favorability item, and this personal approval question.

At the same time the Tarrance/Lake polling found personal approval at 60%, they found job approval at 46% and favorability at 45%. That tracks pretty well with approval in early February (and the positive house effect for Battleground polls, a huge +4.65% though based on few polls so caution is appropriate.)

So two points. While favorability is often influenced by personal impressions, it appears from the graph above that this element of presidential evaluation has become so entangled with job performance for President Bush that the two measures don't vary independently to any significant extent. Favorability is a little higher over the past 16 months, but the two track closely with each other.

The personal approval item, on the other hand, does show what Mr. Rove said it did: at a personal level, setting aside job performance, the public still has a strongly positive view of Mr. Bush.

So if that was the item he had in mind, the data support Mr. Rove's claim.

What is left unclear is how much influence this item might have on electoral behavior. I think you could make an argument that President Bush's personal appeal was a significant help in 2000, when it was common to hear that people would rather go fishing with Bush than with Gore. And I think you could make an argument that Kerry's personality put some voters off in 2004 when compared to Bush. But I'm not at all certain that this personal appeal can be the key to either recovering the president's job approval rating or to holding Republican congressional seats. Those goals must, I think, rest on improved policy performance and not so much on personal charm.

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