Bush's Brain on Bush's Heart
"Get your facts right -- there are at least three president who had worse approval ratings [than George W. Bush]: Truman, Johnson and Nixon."
on-line Washingtonpost.com chat , May 7, 2008
In a post last week, I faulted Karl Rove for slapping down a Washingtonpost.com reader who claimed that his old boss George W. Bush is the "most unpopular" president in U.S. history. The reader was citing a Gallup poll showing that Bush's disapproval rating reached an all-time high of 69 percent in April, the highest figure ever recorded for a president. He was followed by Truman at 67 percent and Nixon at 66 percent.
I have now received a more detailed explanation from Rove for his interpretation of the Gallup poll, which I am posting in slightly abbreviated form, along with the comments of two leading pollsters.
Karl Rove's response:
My source for saying three Presidents had lower approval ratings is Gallup. At their nadir, these three Presidents had lower ratings:
Carter 28% approval
Nixon 24% approval
Truman: 22% approval
"Disapproval" is not the more relevant measure, as you suggest, for two reasons. First, the question posed to me refers in its opening sentence to "approval ratings." And second, "approval" is a more accurate measure to examine over the history of the Gallup Poll than is the "disapproval "rating. Early Gallup polling tends to show much larger percentages of people who don't have an opinion on Presidential performance. Rather than say they disapproved, a larger number of respondents hid out in the "do not know" category in Gallup's earlier years than offer that answer today. Over the years, Americans have shown a growing willingness to express an opinion on presidential performance.
If you look at the marks given Presidents such as Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, you will see a persistently larger number of Americans who offer no opinion on President performance than have chosen that answer in the last thirty years or so. [See Gallup's explanation for this phenomenon here.]
Today, as the percentage of 'no opinion' responses to the presidential job approval question has declined, Americans appear to be more willing to give a negative response, resulting in the situation in which Bush's disapproval rating is at a record high while his approval rating is not at a record low."
Comparing absolute disapproval numbers from today and thirty years ago is comparing apples to oranges. Approval is the better number to look at, not disapproval, because of consistent respondent willingness - over the span of the Gallup Poll - to offer an opinion on this measure.
A couple of points before I turn it over to the experts:
(1) Rove originally said that Johnson had a lower approval rating than Bush. That is not the case. According to Gallup, Johnson's nadir was 35 per cent in August 1968, at the height of the Vietnam war. Bush was 28 per cent in April.
(2) Carter and Bush both recorded approval ratings of 28 percent, so Rove is wrong to say that Carter's rating is "lower" than Bush's.
The main point made by the polling experts I consulted (Frank Newport of Gallup and Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center) is that you have to look at both approval and disapproval ratings to make a fair-minded assessment of Bush's relative standing compared to other presidents. His disapproval rating is higher than any other president, but he outperforms Truman and Nixon on his approval rating.
"You can always spin these numbers to make them look better from your point of view," said Newport, editor-in-Chief of the Gallup Poll. In a blog item here, Newport makes the point that Bush's figures are less-than-stellar whichever way you look at them.
Kohut made a similar point. The approval and disapproval figures are all within the margin of error. "A global statement on where Bush stands has to take both of these indexes into account. It is a complicated picture--but that's the way the world is."
The Pinocchio Test
I may have been a little harsh in awarding Karl Rove three Pinocchios last week. You can make an argument about whether approval or disapproval ratings are a more valid metric for judging unpopularity. (My feeling is that you have to look at both.) The bottom line is that Rove put the best possible spin on a pretty dismal picture. He was wrong about Johnson and only half-right about Carter, so let's settle for two Pinocchios.
Posted by: Dave | May 12, 2008 1:28 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: MikeA | May 12, 2008 2:15 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: JakeD | May 12, 2008 2:33 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Fairlington Blade | May 12, 2008 2:47 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: JakeD | May 12, 2008 2:49 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: JakeD | May 12, 2008 2:53 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Peter Demian | May 12, 2008 2:56 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: JakeD | May 12, 2008 2:59 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Why do you ask, Two Dogs? | May 12, 2008 3:40 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: JakeD | May 12, 2008 3:49 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: fortheclueless | May 12, 2008 3:55 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Will | May 12, 2008 3:58 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: dyinglikeflies | May 12, 2008 4:37 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Moi | May 12, 2008 6:29 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: JakeD | May 12, 2008 6:44 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: DonJulio | May 12, 2008 7:25 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: jblog | May 12, 2008 8:48 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Rove's a Jerk | May 12, 2008 9:37 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Ida | May 14, 2008 11:19 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Dijetlo | May 14, 2008 12:50 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Anonymous | May 15, 2008 6:57 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Michael | May 15, 2008 9:31 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Anonymous | May 15, 2008 11:24 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Jeremiah | May 19, 2008 12:38 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Carl | May 21, 2008 1:02 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: MadasHell | May 23, 2008 3:47 PM | Report abuse
The comments to this entry are closed.