James Q. Wilson: Bush's Poll Numbers Don't Mean a Thing Right Now

Roundup: Historians' Take

James Q. Wilson, in the WSJ (Feb. 27, 2004):

In January, CBS News reported that President Bush's approval was"sinking." This month, USA Today has said it was hitting"a new low." And there is no doubt that the president's approval rating has fallen, down from nearly 90% right after 9/11 to about 51% today.

But does any of this matter? Since 1945, only three presidents (Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton) have retained a high approval rating during their entire period in the White House. Every other president (Truman, Kennedy, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and the elder Bush) lost ground sharply when the voters were asked, as the Gallup Poll does,"do you approve of the way" the president"is doing his job as president?"

President Bush's 51% approval rating looks low, unless you compare it with how other presidents did at the same stage in their White House career.

•  In March 1972, Richard Nixon had an approval rating of 53%. In the general election eight months later, he crushed George McGovern, winning 64% of the vote.

•  In May 1984, Ronald Reagan had an approval rating of 52%. That November he went on to win reelection with 58% of the vote, garnering 525 electoral votes.

•  In March 1996, Bill Clinton had an approval rating of 52%. In November he easily defeated Bob Dole.

The three incumbent presidents who lost their re-election bids, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and the elder Bush, had lower approval ratings. In March 1976 Mr. Ford's was about 48%, in March 1980 Mr. Carter's was around 39% and in March 1992 Mr. Bush's was about 41%.

Obviously there is a floor below which a president ought not sink, but it is a much lower floor than many people suppose. Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll, put it this way: Mr. Bush's approval rating of 51% tells us this about his re-election chances:"not a lot."

Not only are approval ratings not very helpful, neither is a candidate's standing in opinion polls that ask people for whom they plan to vote. In 1968 Hubert Humphrey led Richard Nixon until July; in 1980 Mr. Carter led Mr. Reagan until June and then again from August through most of October; in 1988, Michael Dukakis led the elder Bush until August; in 1992 the elder Bush led Mr. Clinton into June. All of these"leaders" lost.

The reason presidential approval ratings and opinion polls are so fragile is that the man in office is judged every day by what he does and how the media and his political critics portray him. Day to day, he reflects the shifting sentiments of people who react to what they hear and read. But the American people do not vote every day for a president, only once every four years. When they do vote, they tend to follow this pattern:

•  First, about 40% of us will vote for a Democrat, even if the candidate is Genghis Khan. About 40% of us will vote for a Republican, even if the candidate is Attila the Hun. That means that the election is left in the hands of one-fifth of the voters.

•  Second, that one-fifth will not start thinking seriously about the election until after two things have happened: Both the Olympic Games and the World Series are over. I need hardly tell many Americans that we like sports more than we like politics.

•  Third, the one-fifth will sum up in their minds what they think about the past performance of the president, including his character, the state of the economy, and the nature of foreign affairs. There is hardly any evidence that they will think much about the vice president.

Of these, the economy is perhaps the most important. The public now puts it at the top of their list, as they do in every election year when some crisis, such as a crime explosion, has not occurred. But as Dr. Newport has pointed out, the public is also optimistic. Over half think the economy is going in the right direction and more think the unemployment rate will go down than think it will go up.

None of this means that Mr. Bush will win easily, or even win at all. Too many things can happen in the next eight months that may alter the view of the One-Fifth next October. But I think the press can do a better job of reporting what may happen if they devoted more space to an intelligent discussion of the economy than to quick statements about approval ratings.

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