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Parsing the Polls: How Much Does Corruption Count?

Remember the "culture of corruption" mantra House Democrats used against the GOP in the runup to the 2006 election? Look for it to re-appear in 2008.

In the past week, two Republican Members of Congress -- Reps. John Doolittle (Calif.) and Rick Renzi (Ariz.) -- have seen their wives' business raided in connection with ongoing federal investigations.

In addition, Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) is being questioned by the FBI in connection with the Jack Abramoff scandal, while a former aide to Rep.
Don Young
(R-Alaska) has pleaded guilty to accepting illegal gifts from Abramoff.

Whew! That's a laundry list of problems for the GOP. And we haven't even mentioned the U.S. Attorneys' firestorm that has entangled New Mexico's Sen. Pete Domenici (R) and Rep. Heather Wilson (R).

So with Republicans fighting ethical problems on a variety of fronts, now seemed like a good time to see what the America public has to say on the issue of political corruption.

Let's Parse the Polls!

It is clear from scanning recent polls that the American people don't hold either party in terribly high regard when it comes to ethics.

A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, which was in the field from April 12-15, asked a national sample whether they approved or disapproved of the way Democrats in Congress and President Bush were "handling ethics in government."

Forty-five percent of the sample approved of the Democrats' conduct, while 50 percent disapproved. The numbers were even worse for President Bush, with 38 percent approving of his handling of ethics and 57 percent disapproving.

There is a remarkable partisan tinge to these numbers. Sixty-three percent of self-identified Democrats approve of their party's handling of ethics issue compared to 32 percent of Republicans and 36 percent of Independents. Three quarters of Republicans expressed approval for President Bush's ethics, while a meager 12 percent of Democrats and 35 percent of Independents said the same.

(It's worth nothing that Independents seem to have a "pox on both your houses" mentality at the moment. Their approve/disapprove on Democrats (36/61) is quite similar to their response on Bush (35/62).

A Pew poll conducted in February also showed a lack of trust in both parties when it comes to solving the ethical problems within the political process. Asked about the problem of "political corruption" just 10 percent say the country is "making progress" on the issue, while 37 percent said it was "about the same" and almost half (47 percent) said the country was "losing ground."

And again, in a Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research (D) poll, 37 percent said Democrats were the party they associated with "ethics/honesty," while 25 percent said the same about Democrats. Thirty percent said either "both" (five percent) or "neither" (25 percent).

These results indicate that Democrats hold an edge on ethics questions. But, that advantage is far from overwhelming as voters tend to see Washington as incapable of solving its own problems -- especially when it comes to policing itself. That may be due to Democratic problems within their own ranks -- Reps. Bill Jefferson (D-La.) and Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) jump to mind -- or general distrust of all politicians.

It is also important to remember that political corruption isn't a terribly pressing issue to voters. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll, conducted in mid March by Princeton Survey Research Associates, asked people what the most important problem was for the government to address.

Forty-four percent said the Iraq war, while 29 percent said health care and 13 percent said "economic issues." No other issue ranked in double digits and "corruption" ranked seventh with seven percent.

Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research (D) did a poll for in 50 battleground congressional districts in late February/early March that produced similar results. Asked "which issue should Bush and Congress be paying most attention to," 30 percent said the war in Iraq. Fourteen percent said terrorism/national security, 13 percent said health care and 10 percent each said economy/jobs or illegal immigration. "Corruption in Washington" drew just five percent support -- good for ninth place in the priority list.

Do these poll results mean that people aren't interested in corruption with regard to their elected officials? Not necessarily. It means that they are far more interested in the war in Iraq as well as typical pocketbook issues like health care and the economy. Ethics in government is not something that tends to impact their daily lives and therefore they don't spend that much time thinking about it.

Of the 30 seats that Republicans lost in 2006, seven of them were the direct result corruption issues or misbehavior: Florida's 16th, New York's 20th, North Carolina's 11th, Ohio's 18th, Pennsylvania's 10th and Texas' 22nd. The other 23 seats seemed less impacted by corruption within the GOP than a broad public distaste for both President Bush and his handling of the war in Iraq.

Look at exit polling from 2006. Roughly four in ten voters (41 percent) said "corruption and scandals in government" were extremely important. Of that group, Democratic candidates won 59 percent, while Republican candidates won 39 percent. Those for whom corruption was a big deal tended to strongly favor Democrats as the party of change. So corruption was a key ingredient in that deadly mixture for Republicans last November, but it would be a mistake to call it the only or even the main ingredient.

Early signs in public polling indicate that 2008 will show similar trends. Incumbents like Doolittle and Renzi could well be defeated due to corruption problems unique to them and their districts. For other Republican House incumbents, they should be far more worried about the war (and public opinion about it) than corruption problems of their colleagues.

By Chris Cillizza  |  April 25, 2007; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Parsing the Polls  
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