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The Polls Are Correct, But They're Better Than You Think
February 20, 2002
by Josh Brandon

I've heard a lot from people on the Democratic Underground message board recently about the nature of presidential approval polls. "They're phony." "They can't be real." "They're rigged." "They are crafted to make Bush look good."

I don't believe it. Not for a second. I do believe that perhaps some polls might be tilted towards Bush, perhaps by playing with a few numbers. Perhaps Fox News does this. The New York Post, perhaps. If we're looking for a third, I can definitely see the Washington Times as one news outlet that might sometimes find a way to swing their polls.

With Fox News, anyone who takes that network and their polls seriously is already firmly committed to them and is unlikely to change their mind. Fox has a core audience of either people who watch and laugh (like myself) or people who watch and believe, like a lot of conservatives and naive minds. Believe it or not, that while Fox may attract new viewers, I find it highly unlikely that they are ever able to attract many new "believers."

Democraycorps, in putting together its weekly or bi-weekly report on the polls, doesn't even factor Fox's findings into its overall analysis, writing the following message at the bottom of their polling tables: "Due to consistently one-sided deviation from all other publicly released non-partisan polls, we have dropped FOX News polls from our trend analyses."

In that regard, however, Fox isn't the problem. CNN is. CNN, which has become increasingly conservative (more so, some would argue) since Walter Issacson took over, is the problem because it is perceived as a liberal media network, as most others are - some rightfully so, others not. So when CNN reports their own joy about Bush, others might think, "Well, if CNN is reporting that Bush is great, and they're a liberal media source, Bush must be great!"

As far as CNN's polls go, however, I tend to believe that they are accurate. It's not the data that's skewed with CNN, it's the presentation. If they take a poll that shows Bush's ratings at 81%, they won't say "Bush's approval ratings are down ten points since September 11" or "Bush's approval rating has slipped in the last few months," they'll say "Bush's approval rating still remarkably high - holding in the 80s!"

Everyone else? Gallup, Zogby, Time, the New York Times, the Washington Post, etc... I think they're telling the truth. I think when they call up 1000 people and ask the question "do you approve or disapprove of the way George W. Bush is handling his job as President," eighty-or-so per cent of the United States will answer that they approve. Does this mean that they blindly support everything Bush wants to do? Of course not.

What's the problem here? The polls don't ask the right questions. I don't blame them in this case, the presidential approval poll has always been based on the same question - but presidential approval does not necessarily equate to anything particularly important, such as the upcoming midterm elections or the more distant 2004 presidential election.

We already know that Bush has no coat tails. His approval numbers were astronomical around October/November of last year and he still couldn't get Republicans elected in the two races in New Jersey and Virginia, states that were both previously governed by Republicans. Granted, he didn't openly campaign, but if he can't swing voters with a 'personal letter' campaign or even by his association with the Republican party, what power can he possibly have to help his party in the midterm elections?

In addition, Bush's ratings are definitely coming down. He failed to get the "bump" that Presidents usually receive after delivering a State of the Union address, and the Enron cloud over the White House doesn't appear to be going away, with public opinion moving increasingly to the opinion that the Bush administration is hiding facts about its relationship with the bankrupt energy giant. The White House can keep insisting that Enron is only an "accounting scandal" - but the country's perception is tending not to believe this as weeks and months pass.

While Bush's approval ratings remain high, being reported now as anywhere between 73%(Zogby) and 82%(Gallup), two other polling questions are the ones we should be paying attention to. One is to focus on the very close upcoming battles. The other is to assuage fears of another battle.

The first polls that I speak of are the midterm election polls, which despite being closely back-and-forth on either side will at least tell you one thing: despite Bush's high approval ratings, the Congressional elections are looking very close at the moment - and I believe the Democrats have a decisive advantage. Republicans have gained ground since September 11 - at one stage they were ahead in the polls by almost 10 points - but thankfully their bump happened more than a year away from election day.

Republican numbers don't go up because of Bush, they go up because Republicans are perceived as being hawks on defense and on the military in general, whereas Democrats are still favoured on social issues, such as Social Security and Healthcare. We have seen that as the war on terrorism progresses, the national focus has shifted its priorities from the war, to homeland security, to the economy. As time continues to bring us closer to the midterm elections of 2002, those priorities (and this is all assuming that another terrorist attack does not occur on American soil) have shifted - and will continue to shift - to domestic and social issues, which tend to favour the Democratic Party over the Republicans.

Barring any terrorist attacks on American soil, the closer the midterms get, the more ground Republicans lose in the polls, and the less likely it becomes that they will succeed in their two goals: re-taking the Senate, and holding on to their whisker-thin margin in the House of Representatives.

The second set of polls to be watching are, as noted earlier, more worth watching to set our minds at ease. They are the Bush re-election polls. When Gallup was reporting Bush's approval rating at 90% (the highest recorded in Gallup's history), they asked how many voters would choose to re-elect Bush in 2004. The result was incredible: 54%. At the height of his popularity, Bush could only sway 54% of the electorate to vote for him again. This could not bode well for Bush, and indeed as time has passed since his numbers were that high, his re-election margin has decreased.

Ironically, a Fox News poll was the first to broadcast a poll reporting his re-elect numbers at below 50%. Since then, those numbers have decreased two points, with the latest poll, taken by the Los Angeles Times on 3 Februray, putting Bush's re-elect numbers at 47% against a generic Democrat. 47% is fractionally lower than his popular vote percentage in the 2000 Election, where he received 47.7% of the vote to Al Gore's 48.4%

If there is one thing above all to be learned from the polls, it is this: they can often serve to strengthen the side that they don't favor. Democratic supporters, take heed: whether the polls have your party at 42% of 62%, you must fight harder than ever before if you truly want to ensure victory. Polls can encourage political activism but they can also result in political apathy. In this case, the polls are probably an active reflection of the country's political move. While the results aren't as bad as some of you might have thought, don't give them any thought as you hit the campaign trail to take back the House and hold onto the Senate.


Josh Brandon is one of those who believe that what happens in the US affects the rest of the world, and thus despite being an Australian, he takes a keen interest in American politics. This is the first article he has written for internet publication.

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