Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Bush approval decline ends, upturn begins (?)

Two new polls from Quinnipiac University and Gallup have made a clear case that President Bush's approval ratings have at least halted their decline and may have started to rise. The blue line in the figure above is my standard model which takes a conservative approach to changes in approval, requiring relatively strong evidence of changes in trends. The red line is less conservative, more responsive to short term change, but also more vulnerable to mistaking random variation for true change. It is clear from the blue line that we have at least entered a period in which the President's approval has halted it's four month long decline and has stabilized, at an estimate of 34.1%. If one is a bit more adventurous, then the red line is willing to go further and say that approval has in fact started to increase, to an estimated 36.3%. Either of these is welcome news for the White House and a potential threat to Democrats who have written off the President's chances of improving his standing with the public (see caveats below for both parties!)

The Quinnipiac poll was taken 5/23-30/06 and found approval at 35%, disapproval at 58%. Gallup was taken 6/1-4/06 and found approval at 36%, disapproval at 57%.

As is clear from the figure, the red line tracks the more conservative (statistically!) blue line quite well, and has not moved very far from the blue line except during the approval rally of November-January. That it has now moved away from the conservative trend therefore is pretty good evidence that a real shift is taking place. Robert Chung shows a clear upturn in his model here. Robert emailed last week to say the Quinnipiac data alone was enough to produce an uptick. (I was tied up with another project or would have posted something then as well.) With the addition of the Gallup data, I think the case is even stronger that the uptick is real. (But of course only if you want to be less conservative than my standard model.)

For the White House the great news is we've seen six polls in row that are above the previous trend of lows: CBS/NYT 5/16-17 at 35%, CNN 5/16-17 at 36%, Fox 5/16-18 at 35%, Hotline 5/18-21 at 37% and now Quinnipiac 5/23-30 at 35% and Gallup 6/1-4 at 36%. The six polls prior to 5/17 had approval at 32, 33, 35, 33, 29 and 31. The average of the last six polls is 35.7 vs 32.2 for the previous six, a rise of 3.5%, which is pretty impressive.

So where is the increase coming from? So far, mostly from Republicans. Gallup reports today (free access here for the rest of the day) that approval among Republicans increased from 68% and 70% in early May polls to 78% in the new June poll. This reversed a slide and restored Republican support to about where in was in March and April. Independents showed a 3 percentage point uptick between early May and June, while Dems remained stuck at 8% approval. The Quinnipiac results are similar, with 74% Rep approval, 28% Ind and 8% Dem.

And that is where the caveat should come in. The improvement is driven more by winning back wavering Republicans than it is bringing Independents back. For mobilizing the "base" this is undoubtedly a good thing. But it also means that Independents are not coming back, at least not yet (they did significantly increase support in the November-January rally, so it can happen here too.) While there is a lot of talk about "the base" and "swing voters" are out of fashion, I think that the midterm also depends on what independents do. If they are angry or disappointed with the President, they lack a partisan reason to support Republican congressional candidates and might well help shift the congressional seat balance. If they are less unhappy, then a more evenly balanced vote split among independents gives a solid Republican base more weight in the ultimate electoral balance. So winning back the base is a crucial first step for the White House, but I think some improvement among independents is more important than news reports (at least) suggest is the focus of Republican electoral strategy. Whether those news reports are in fact a correct depiction of Republican strategy is beyond my competence. But if I had a say I'd push for a strategy that goes beyond the base.

Which leads me to the immigration and gay marriage issues. I'll have something to say about these in the next post or two, but for now I want to point out two things. First, I continue to believe that it is the so-called mainstreet Republicans who are coming back, more so than the "movement conservatives" on the immigration issue. Polling shows that, contra Rush and Lou Dobbs, the President's position on immigration is widely supported among all partisan groups, including Republicans. I believe Presidential leadership there has been good for approval ratings because it has brought back wavering mainstreet Republicans rather than alienated movement conservatives.

Gay marriage is presented as a "rally the base" issue, meaning in this case the movement conservatives. But I think Democrats in particular fail to appreciate that anti-gay marriage amendments have been winning substantial majorities (18 out of 20 with over 60% support) not solely on the basis of votes from the "far right religious conservatives." Dems may WISH the public had different values, but they are very mistaken if they think these votes were entirely the result of religious conservative turnout. So while I doubt the constitutional amendment itself is a net winner for the President, opposition to gay marriage is about more than just rallying the base, regardless of what we read in the papers.

On the Democratic side, this is yet another notice served that they can't count on winning in 2006 simply on the basis of poor approval ratings of President Bush. He may not be that dramatically unpopular by election day. Then what?


I hope to elaborate on the immigration and gay marriage points in the next day or so. Apologies to regular readers for the lack of posting. The last two weeks have been taken over by another project (now finished!) but I plan to be back to more regular postings now.

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