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December 13, 2005

A Few Thoughts on Polls

There's been some crowing over Bush's remarkable lift in the polls. The media's impressed, the right-o-sphere's atwitter, and Democrats are explaining it away. This is the big Bush comeback: only 6 out of 10 people don't like him!

A couple things:

• Without an obvious and routinely unraveling scandal, numbers in the 30's were basically unsustainable. Americans are predisposed to liking their president. Unlike the readers of, say, this blog, they don't want to believe the bad dude in the big chair with the cool office and the sweet jet is a total screwoff. Fair enough. So if Bush isn't really doing anything -- and at the moment, that appears to be the White House strategy -- approval ratings will drift back towards mediocrity, simply because overwhelming majorities of people aren't going to dislike the guy when he's cowering in a corner with his head down. Doesn't mean they'll like him, either, but there's not really a whole lot to disapprove of here.

• Take a look where Clinton's ratings were in 1994. Mid-to-high 40's, generally.

• The timing on all this is crucial. If we'd held the election in July or February, Kerry would have won. A variety of economic indicators, climatological happenstances, and international politics cycles tend to make November a fairly good time for incumbents. Take it back a few months and you'd have higher gas prices, take it forward a few and you'd face bitter winters and painful heating bills.

• The electoral worry for Democrats is that Bush troughs (can I use that as a verb?) too early. In the same way a candidate can peak too soon and find their momentum unsustainable, a candidate can hit rock bottom so far from the election he's got both plenty of time and motivation to change.

What you want is for Bush to limp along in a quasi-unpopular gray zone, not disliked enough to fade into the shadows but not popular enough to ride herd on his party. Then, when the election heats up, you try to tank the whole bunch. If he's too beaten before the election, the party will distance itself long before the voting starts. You don't want that: you want him in the mix, then you want to nationalize the election around Republican and administration scandals, and then you want to tie every conservative candidate in the country to their party's more recognizable mug shots and troubled leaders.

December 13, 2005 | Permalink


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Tracked on Dec 22, 2005 10:43:27 AM


he's got both plenty of time and motivation to change.

Change?! This obviously doesn't apply to Bush.

If he's too beaten before the election, the party will distance itself long before the voting starts.

That is a problem. Which is why they've got to be tied to him, and to their votes, at every opportunity.

Posted by: Allen K. | Dec 13, 2005 11:35:33 AM

Yippee, a 5 point bump in December of an odd year. Are conservatives getting excited over this?

Let's worry less about the polls and more about why the polls were so low in November. Keep the pressure on the scandals.

Posted by: Adrock | Dec 13, 2005 12:02:55 PM

Good points, Ezra. My pet theory is something I heard when Bush's numbers started tanking - that his post-Iraq war popularity rating (and presidential ratings in general) tend to track the price of gasoline very closely. Bush's summer collapse had less to do with people finally "waking up" than with spikes in the price of gas. The disappearance of Katrina-related anger seems to confirm this - people were upset at Bush, not because he allowed an entire city to be inundated while he fiddled, but rather because his inaction led to gas shortages. Now that gas prices are dropping back to $2/gallon, Katrina has pretty much slipped from everyone's mind (except for the millions displaced or ruined from it, of course).

The price of gas has dropped sharply in the last month (presumably, as Katrina damaged refineries and infrastructure come back on line), so it's no surprise that Bush's numbers are jumping up in response.

Posted by: FMguru | Dec 13, 2005 12:46:00 PM

I agree that it's mostly about gas prices. Bush made numerous attempts to stop his slide or mount a comeback this year. He made at least two prime-time speeches/news conferences aimed at shoring him up on Social Security and Iraq before Hurricane Katrina. After the hurricane there was the Jackson Square speech in New Orleans, the withdrawal of Miers for Alito, and the "Democrats are lying about my lying" speeches. None of this stopped his descent, even with a hallelujah chorus in the media predicting or analyzing a possible "comeback" every time.

If you read the internals for these recent polls, the Iraq numbers haven't really changed. The "America moving in the right direction?" and economy numbers have. Most probably because people are no longer paying $50 to fill up their cars.

Posted by: Dave | Dec 13, 2005 1:20:17 PM

I was listening to some self-styled right wingnuts who have a show on one of the local college radio stations (essentially 20 year old Rush wannabes who play bad commercial rap, it is entertaining in small chunks in a perverse way, anyway...)and they were crowing about how Bush had pulled himself out of the dump by giving these high profile "Iraq speeches" lately. Is this what the other wingnuts are trying to say too? The polls actually say that fewer people were convinced by the speeches, and, even more tellingly, that most people polled didn't even know or care about these litte pep talks.

Posted by: sprocket | Dec 13, 2005 1:23:45 PM

I tend to agree - the notion of a "bounce" is kind of silly - there's a solid 40% opposed to Bush, maybe 40 in favor and 20 in the middle who haven't been thrilled with him and aren't likely to be soon. His numbers have essentially nowhere to go. The party can't abandon him, but they can't follow him. That's why next year looks pretty darn good.

Posted by: weboy | Dec 13, 2005 2:19:14 PM

I have to say, probably to the dismay of many, that I am somewhat glad that Bush won in 2004. If Kerry had won, he would have had to clean up all of Bush's messes. He likely would have screwed up dealing with Bush's screw ups and gotten a lot of flak for it. Even though Bush will get some legislation through that we dont like, the fact that he is having to deal with all that he has wrot the last few years is going to help us in the long run. Since the Republicans are in charge of everything, they cant really place the blame on anyone else. If we just be patience, I think people will get real tired of their policies.

Posted by: Michael Wilson | Dec 13, 2005 3:26:44 PM

Funny how the wingers are celebrating a 41% approval rating. It was up to 46% on some polls before The Big Iraq Speech - after which it promptly sank again.

So, yeah, George: give more of those great speeches.

If his approval follows oil prices in general - not just gas but home heating oil, too - he's gonna be in a world of hurt come January.

Posted by: CaseyL | Dec 13, 2005 10:35:21 PM

Looking at the Faux Snews poll figures the other day, I noticed that except for a dip in Shrubs' approval rating for one poll, the numbers have been in the same range for a while since Katrina. If the economy continues to improve and energy costs don't go up again his numbers will go up, but that's a very big if.

MW: I think Dems should hold the Repubs feet to the fire on every issue that they've screwed up on. Dems have been playing defense since 1994, it's now time to play some offense and take advantage of all the stumbling disunity that is in the Republican party today use their 'strengths' (corruption, incompetence, cronyism, style over substance, etc.) against them.

Posted by: The Dark Avenger | Dec 14, 2005 3:41:05 AM

I just really can't comprehend what Republican pundits are doing. I just passed a TV tuned to FoxNews that had a talking head with the subtitle "A New Era? Pres Polls up After Iraq Speeches". I comprehend the desire to play up how things are for the President, but saying that Iraq is entering a new era? Exaggerating a bit? It's... well it's exactly like the Mission Accomplished banner. Some righteous indulgence in the short-run that will prove to be so wrong in the long-run that it's nothing more than a source of mockery.

Why do this? Is there some critical election about to happen? Some key piece of legislation that needs a popular President? What is it about this moment in time that needs heightened expectations at the cost of the future credibility, except for blind optimism?

More seriously, I think the more tanking the better. If the President is low enough that congressmen distance themselves from him - then good! Policy-wise, that is certainly superior, and it may even save our Supreme Court.

Posted by: Tony Vila | Dec 14, 2005 2:39:31 PM

It's called regression to the mean. They'll bounce back down shortly. He seems to have hit a low plateau here, and won't move barring some political development.

Posted by: theorajones | Dec 14, 2005 5:33:58 PM

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