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Bad news for Bush and the GOP? Maybe, maybe not

By Doug Thompson
July 2, 2006

President George W. Bush and his strategists felt recent events would drive up the administration’s sagging poll numbers and help Republican prospects in the November mid-term elections.

Reports Time Magazine in a new survey:

A spate of good news at home and abroad has so far failed to boost how Americans feel about President Bush’s job performance. Bush’s approval rating slipped to 35% in a TIME poll taken this week, down from 37% in March (and 53% in early 2005). Only 33% of Americans in the survey said they approved of Bush’s handling of the situation in Iraq, vs. 35% in March, and 47% in March 2005. His management of the U.S. economy lost supporters, too, as 36% approved, compared with 39% three months earlier. Bush’s handling of the war on terror saw a slight gain in support, from 44% to 45%.

Bush’s poll numbers remain stuck in a rut despite several high-profile victories scored recently by the Bush Administration. Earlier this month, U.S. forces killed al-Qaeda leader Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi in an air raid in Iraq. Also this month, Karl Rove escaped indictment in the CIA leak investigation. And the Commerce Department reported today that the U.S. economy grew 5.6% in the first quarter of 2006, the fastest growth in more than two years.

But continued pessimism about the situation in Iraq and a broad sense of unease about America’s direction may be undermining Bush’s popularity. In the TIME survey, 66% said the country is on the wrong track, vs. 28% who said it’s going in the right direction. Those numbers have worsened since March, when the poll recorded a 60% to 34% split. When asked whether the new Iraqi government will be able to build a stable and reasonably democratic society, 48% of those surveyed said no, while 39% remain optimistic.

For Congress the news doesn’t look much better:

Americans have grown more critical of the job Congress is doing, compared with three months ago. Only 31% approved, down sharply from 39% in March. Asked whether they would be more likely to vote for the Republican or Democratic candidate in the district where they live if the election were held today, 47% said Democrat and 35% said Republican, a two-point improvement for Democrats.

Bottom line. Democratic prospects up for November, Republicans looking dim.

But, does the Time poll tell the whole picture. Professor Charles Franklin, who teaches statistical analysis at the University of Wisconsin, says media polls too often miss the point because they don’t look at the big picture:

In part, the news organizations are handicapped by their sponsorship of polling. CNN wants to quote only CNN polls, and CBS acts as if NBC didn’t do polling. There are obvious business reasons for doing so, but it limits the writing reporters can do.

Professor Franklin says the newest Time poll proves the point:

A new Time Magazine poll taken 6/27-29/06 finds approval of President Bush at 35%, with disapproval at 59%. Time’s poll is the second lowest of the 13 polls taken since Iraq Al-Qaeda leader Zarqawi was killed June 8th. In that time, polls have ranged from 33 to 41 percent approval, with a median of 37% and a mean of 37.7%. With the addition of the Time poll, my approval trend estimate is revised down to 38.59%, from yesterday’s 38.98% prior to the Time poll.

Because the Time poll comes on the heels of three polls at 41%, the question of whether this is a sign of the end of the upward trend in approval is being widely discussed. Or is the Time poll a fluke? Or is it simply within the normal range of variation given my estimate of approval?

The short answer is that it is well within the usual range of variation around my trend estimate.

What is completely dubious and outrageous is the Time article on the poll posted to their website. It is a perfect example of the failure of journalists to bring even a modicum of intelligence to their analysis when they choose to ignore all other polling and write myopically based solely on their own polls.

In other words we need more data to see a real trend here.

Republicans continue to pin their hopes on two long held traditions about voters in Congressional races:

  1. Although most voters think Congress as an institution is corrupt and needs replacing, they don’t always have the same opinion of their representatives who may be good at bringing home the bacon;
  2. Incumbents have a built-in advantage in fund raising and use of their offices to promote themselves politically.

Will this be enough to offset the rising tide of public anger?

Political analyst Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report says that’s up to Democrats:

Watching Democrats deal with the issue of Iraq is like watching the old movie, “Perils of Pauline.” Just as everything looks great for them, they do something to get into a jam, and just when it looks like they are in serious trouble, something happens to get them out. It’s almost exhausting to watch, but certainly not boring.

Last week, as the Senate debated the Iraq war and some Democrats again pushed for a timetable for withdrawal, it looked like Democrats were flirting with disaster again, pushing too hard on the “what next” agenda. Republicans were licking their chops that they might at last be getting the Iraq monkey off their back, and that Iraq and national security might become the asset for the GOP in 2006 that it was in 2002 and 2004, both very successful elections for Republicans.

But a report in the New York Times over the weekend that Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, had briefed the Pentagon last week on a plan to reduce the number of brigades in Iraq from 14 down to as few as five or six by December 2007 would seem to undercut the GOP argument that Democrats are advocating “cutting and running,” unless they want to describe Casey’s plan as cutting and running. Who knows what will come next. There never seems to be a dull moment in this 2006 election cycle.

What Cook and Franklin agree on is the number one decider of all elections: The voter who walks into the booth on election day. Until that happens, all anybody can do is guess.