Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Nixon Pardon in Retrospect

Much of the discussion of President Ford's legacy has centered on his pardon of President Nixon for any crimes he may have committed during his tenure. That decision had an immediate negative effect on President Ford's approval rating, dropping him from the mid-60s to 50%. I reviewed the approval ratings of Ford in an earlier post here. In this post I turn to the reaction to the Nixon pardon, both during Ford's time in office and since.

The figure above focuses on the period from September 1974 through the 1976 campaign and the end of Ford's term in January 1977.

To compare the responses, we need to take account of some substantial differences in question wording. Survey organizations used three broad categories of question wording during this period, though there was some variation even within these categories. I've grouped them as "Right or wrong" for questions that used some variation on the phrase: "Do you feel it was right or wrong for President Ford to have given former President Nixon a full pardon?" The key fact about this wording is that it explicitly offers both "right" and "wrong" options in evaluation of the pardon. Several pollsters used variations on this basic pair of alternatives.

The second wording was phrased negatively: "He (Ford) did not do the right thing in giving former President Nixon a full pardon." The respondent had to agree or disagree with this statement. This wording was used by Louis Harris and Associates only.

The third variation was "In the long run, it was probably right to pardon former President Nixon," emphasizing both the long run and offering only the positive assessment of the pardon. CBS and the New York Times used this variation.

Taking account of these differences, it is clear that there was strong opposition to a pardon before Ford acted. The Harris and Gallup polls completed just before September 8, 1974 found only about 35%-37% of respondents saying it would be "right" to grant a pardon. Immediately after Ford announced the pardon, this fell to between 30% and 35% saying he had done the right thing.

After the 1974 midterm elections, Ford's overall approval rating fell into the upper 30s. During 1975 Harris twice asked its negatively framed question, finding only 29% and 31% saying the pardon was "not wrong" (that is, disagreeing that Ford "did not do the right thing".) (For the record, let me say how much I despise negatively worded questions, and I can't imagine why Harris felt compelled to use this awkward wording.)

The Harris question appeared to run some 3-4 points below the balanced "right or wrong" question wording. However, Harris tested this in August 1976 by including both their negatively phrased question and a balanced form "As far as you personally are concerned, do you think President Ford was more right or more wrong to have given former President Nixon a complete and unconditional pardon?" The results were 33% "more right", compared to 32% for the "right" side of their negatively worded question. So by that evidence perhaps the question wording didn't matter as much as it might seem it should on the face of it.

A balanced Gallup question in June of 1976 found 35% saying the pardon was the right thing, so the difference between that and Harris is again around 3 points.

In sharp contrast, when CBS/New York Times asked a positively worded question that also stressed "in the long run", the results were considerably more favorable. Between May and October 1976, CBS/NYT asked this question five times, with "probably right" getting between 43% and 47% of responses. While more respondents disagreed with this question than agreed in 3 of the 5 polls, the view was clearly more supportive of Ford's decision than previous polling had suggested. While the negative wording of the Harris poll appears to have had a 3-4 point effect in reducing support for the pardon, the combination of long run and positive wording in CBS/NYT appears to have produced almost a 10-12 point boost in support for the pardon. What we can't know, of course, is which was "right". Based on the two balanced questions asked in the summer of 1976, it seems likely that support for the pardon was largely unchanged from 1974, at between 33% and 35% support. Whether the CBS/NYT version was tapping an important distinction in public attitudes or just showing the influence of question wording is not answerable with the data we have.

Regardless of the "true" level of support for the pardon in late 1976, it is apparent that Ford's decision remained more unpopular than not through the election campaign. How much effect this may have had on his electoral support remains a question for another day. Gallup asked how important the pardon was to voters in September 1976. 22% rated it a 5 (on a 5 point scale of importance) compared to 35% rating it a 1, suggesting some decline in salience of the issue by that time.

The CBS/NYT question stressing "in the long run" turns out to map pretty well with polling much later in time. In May and June of 1982 (I presume for the 10th anniversary of the Watergate breakin) ABC/Washington Post and Gallup both asked a balanced "right or wrong" format question about the pardon. They found 45% and 46% respectively saying the pardon had been the right thing, very much in line with the 1976 CBS/NYT results, but a substantial 10-12 point upturn from the last balanced questions we have from the summer of 1976. These longer run data are shown in the plot below.

Four years later in early May, Gallup found support for the pardon rising to 54%, with a opposition to the pardon falling below support for the first time by a substantial margin to 39%. This again used a balanced "right or wrong" format.

Richard Nixon died on April 22, 1994. No polls that I've found asked about the pardon at that time so we don't know if his death caused any reevaluation of the pardon.

ABC/Washington Post asked the "right or wrong" question again in June 2002, 30 years after the Watergate break in. This time those saying the pardon was the right thing rose to 59%, with only 32% continuing to say it was the wrong thing to do.

If the question is repeated in the aftermath of President Ford's death, it seems likely that support for his unpopular decision may now top 60%, reversing the verdict of 1974.

Since it is impossible to know what would have happened in the absence of a pardon, we can never be sure if Ford's decision spared the country prolonged division or whether it was a decision that thwarted justice. The long run verdict of popular opinion, however, has clearly come over to Ford's side.