GOP Pollster Says May Be Over for Bush
A leading Republican pollster thinks it is too late for President Bush to recover from his low approval ratings.
The recent White House shake-up was an attempt to jump-start the administration and boost President Bush’s rock-bottom approval ratings, but have those efforts come too late to salvage the presidency? A prominent GOP pollster thinks that may be the case. “This administration may be over,” Lance Tarrance, a chief architect of the Republicans’ 1960s and ’70s Southern strategy, told a gathering of journalists and political wonks last week. “By and large, if you want to be tough about it, the relevancy of this administration on policy may be over.”
A new poll by RT Strategies, the firm headed by Tarrance and Democratic pollster Thomas Riehle, shows that 59 percent of Americans disapprove of Bush’s job performance, while 36 percent approve — a finding in line with other recent polls.
Tarrance said it would be extremely difficult for any president to bounce back this late in his administration and reassert influence on Capitol Hill when his approval rating barely exceeds his party’s base support and half of all adults surveyed said they “strongly disapprove” of his performance. An overwhelming 73 percent of independents disapprove of Bush’s performance, and two-thirds of those “strongly disapprove.”
Full disclosure: My wife is a VP at a competing polling firm.
Tarrance may well be right. Certainly, I agree that changes in the White House staff are unlikely to have much impact. Still, there are at least three major problems with his analysis.
First, while pollsters are in an excellent position to guage the public mood and spot trends, they are no smarter than any of the rest of us about what voters will think months, let alone years, into the future. Some issues, such as views on abortion, gun control, and capital punishment, are relatively stable. Public mood and opinion as to whether the country is “on the right track,” by contrast, are incredibly volatile. I doubt, for example, that Tarrance predicted the president’s collapse in the polls two years ago.
Second, Tarrance acknowledges that almost all of the president’s negatives stem from a single issue.
“We will have a referendum on Iraq for the first time in ’06, and the ’08 election may be similar,” Tarrance said. The two years “are going to be relatively bundled together because of Iraq.”
It is not inconceivable that things will have turned dramatically for the better in Iraq by November. Further, it is not only possible but likely that Iraq will be largely off the radar screen by 2008. That’s important since almost everything we know about voting behavior is that voters tend to vote prospectively, not retrospectively, especially when there is no incumbent. Given that the leading GOP candidates for 2008 are John McCain, a senator best known for being a thorn in Bush’s side, and outsiders George Allen, Rudy Giuliani, and Mitt Romney the race is especially unlikely to be a referendum on the previous eight years.
Third, party identification tends to be rather stable. Those who voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004 may be frustrated with the lack of progress in moving the agenda that he campaigned on. Still, they want him to succeed. A few hopeful signs in Iraq and some stabilization in gas prices would send his approval ratings up 10-15 points in short order.