The polls

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"President's Poll Rating Falls to a New Low," reads the headline in this morning's Washington Post. The accompanying article by Dan Balz and Richard Morin seems to me a reasonable account of the poll results. But they need to be kept in perspective. A few points of my own:

The poll finds that 45 percent approve of George W. Bush's job performance and 53 percent disapprove. This is below the 50 percent approval Bush got in the Post poll just before the November election and the 52 percent he got in January. But only 5 percent below: not a huge movement by historical standards. As the Post's own chart shows, Bush's job rating zoomed upward after September 11 and again, to a lesser extent, during conventional military operations in Iraq. But apart from that it has tended to hover around the 50 percent level. This is in line with the view I have frequently taken that Americans are polarized and closely divided over this president and with the results of the 2000, 2002 and 2004 elections.

The Post poll samples adults and does not screen for voters or likely voters. The latter groups tend to be more Republican. Only 29 percent of the adults in the Post sample identify as Republicans, well below the 37 percent who did so in the 2004 NEP exit poll. So it's likely that if the Post had screened for likely voters, Bush's job approval rating would have been a few points higher, most likely just under 50 percent. This is much higher than the job approval ratings of Richard Nixon or Jimmy Carter at some points during their administrations, or for that matter of Ronald Reagan at some points in his. It may be Bush's lowest job rating in Post polls, but it's hardly a disastrous number.

Does this result suggest that, if the November 2006 elections were held today, the Republicans would do worse than they did in 2002 and 2004, when they won majorities of the popular vote for the House and, in 2004, for the presidency? Probably. But not by much. The key factor in those elections was one which is hard to gauge from polls: turnout. In both 2002 and 2004 Republicans won on turnout. You might take the Post results as an indication that Republicans would not have that advantage if the 2006 election were held today. But maybe not. And it doesn't provide much basis for concluding what the balance of turnout will be 14 months from now.

Another interesting thing about the Post poll is that it shows Bush getting similar ratings on Iraq to those he got six months ago–despite mainstream media concentration on casualties in Iraq and Cindy Sheehan's shrewdly staged demonstrations in Crawford. By 51 to 38 percent, the public said America is winning the war there. When given alternatives on troop levels, 21 percent of adults said we should send more troops there, 35 percent said keep the same amount of troops, 27 percent said reduce the number of troops but not withdraw immediately, and 13 percent said withdraw immediately. In other words, only 1 in 8 voters agrees with Cindy Sheehan on this issue. These numbers suggest that disapproval of Bush's course in Iraq is voiced not only by those who want troop reductions or withdrawal but also by those who want more troops and presumably a more aggressive prosecution of the military effort.

Further interesting information comes from Scott Rasmussen's daily polling. Rasmussen, unlike the Post, weights for party identification, which means that each day's sample is made up of the same proportions of self-identified Republicans and Democrats. His numbers proved to be very close to the 2004 election results. Rasmussen's three-day rolling averages showed Bush's job approval pretty steady most of the year and then dipping to 43 and 44 percent in mid-August—when mainstream media was on Cindy Sheehan. It's back up to 49 percent approval and 50 percent disapproval today. That's within the margin of error of the Post poll.

On Iraq, Rasmussen reports that "while 79 percent agree with President Bush on the importance of the Iraqi mission, just 48 percent believe that success is likely. . . . The public concerns about the War effort are primarily about competence, not ideology." In addition, 59 percent say it is very important and 20 percent say it is somewhat important "for Iraq to become a stable country that rejects terrorism."

These numbers taken together seem to me to show problems for both parties. For Bush and the Republicans, the problem is how to achieve success and how to convince Americans, in the face of a hostile, negative-minded mainstream media, that we have achieved success. For the Democrats, the problem is to determine what stance to take on Iraq when the stance of the party's vociferous left wing—immediate withdrawal—is unpopular and is seen as likely to produce results the great majority of the American people don't want to see.