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Parsing the Polls: A Zarqawi Bounce for Bush?

It's been a rough spring for Republicans. For months, they have been looking for an upward bounce in public approval ratings regarding how President Bush and the GOP in general are managing the war in Iraq.

It's been thin gruel for most of that time, but the death of terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi on June 7 prompted speculation in GOP ranks that public attitude about the war is at a turning point.

Two polls that went into the field immediately following news of Zarqawi's death have been released this week -- one conducted by USA Today/Gallup and the other by CBS News.

The surveys show that while voters believe that catching Zarqawi was a major accomplishment for the United States and our Iraqi allies, it has not fundamentally altered their opinion of President Bush, the war in Iraq or other major issues of the day. The polls show that Bush made some gains in voters' perceptions about hot issues of the day, but a majority of American still disapprove of how he is handling almost every one of their top concerns. There is some good news for the president in the polls, however, as more people believe that the war in Iraq is now winnable, although majorities still don't believe it was worth fighting to begin with.

Let's parse the polls...

There is little question that the death of Zarqawi is viewed positively by the American public. In the USA Today/Gallup survey, 53 percent of respondents called it a "major" achievement, 36 percent a "minor" achievement and just nine percent said it was not an achievement at all.

In the CBS poll, 77 percent had heard either "a lot" (41 percent) or "some" (36 percent) about Zarqawi's death, while 22 percent said they knew either "not much" (16 percent) or "nothing at all" (6 percent) about the development.

The CBS sample is pessimistic rather than optimistic about how Zarqawi's death will influence developments in the Iraq conflict. Thirty percent said attacks against American troops will increase following the terrorist's death, compared with 16 percent who said they would lessen. Half of those tested said the killing of Zarqawi would have no impact. Asked whether Zarqawi's death would increase, decrease or have no impact on the threat of terrorism in America, 22 percent said it would increase the threat, 13 percent said the threat would decrease and 61 percent said it would have no impact.

Looking at how Zarqawi's death affected President Bush's job-approval numbers provides no clear evidence of a bounce. In the USA Today/Gallup poll, 38 percent said they approve of the job Bush is doing compared with 56 percent who said they disapprove. A USA Today/Gallup survey from earlier this month showed the president's job approval at 36 percent and disapproval at 57 percent. The numbers this time around have improved slightly but are just as easily explained by the margin of error as any real sign of a turnaround.

In the CBS poll, Bush's job-approval numbers actually dropped from 35 percent in a May survey to 33 percent this month, while disapproval stayed steady at 60 percent. Again, these changes are small enough that to read anything larger into them is a fool's errand.

On other hot-button issues of the day, the polls provide somewhat contradictory results. In the USA Today/Gallup survey, the president has made small but measurable gains. Thirty-nine percent now approve of his handling of the economy, up from 34 percent in late April. Similar gains came in "foreign affairs" (a 6-point gain since April), the "situation in Iraq (+4), immigration (+12) and "energy policy" (+8). Because the two polls being compared were conducted two months apart, it would be a mistake to attribute any of these gains to the death of Zarqawi specifically, but they do seem to suggest that Bush is bouncing back -- albeit slightly -- from the nadir he reached in the polls this spring.

The CBS survey shows statistically insignificant gains for Bush on the war in Iraq (a 2-point gain in approval from a May survey) and the the war on terror (+1), while revealing slippage on immigration (-5) and the economy (-1). Eighteen percent of the sample now approve of Bush's handling of gas prices, but that number had nowhere to go but up after the president's 13 percent approval rating on the issue last month. "The president's current low job approval rating may have as much to do with the poor evaluations he receives on handling domestic issues as Iraq," according to CBS's analysis of its poll.

The silver lining in both polls for Bush is a longer-term trend among voters who seem to be coming around to the idea that the United States can and will eventually win the war in Iraq.

In the USA Today/Gallup poll, 48 percent said the U.S. will "definitely" (19 percent) or "probably" (29 percent) win the war; 21 percent said they thought America could but wouldn't win the war, and 27 percent said simply that the U.S. will not win the war. That 48/48 split is an improvement from an early April USA Today/Gallup survey that showed 39 percent believing America could win the war while 47 percent said it either couldn't or wouldn't.

The CBS poll showed similar results on the question of long-term victory in Iraq. Sixty percent said it was either "very" (19 percent) or "somewhat" (41 percent) likely that the U.S. will succeed in Iraq, compared with 37 percent who said it was "not very" (24 percent) or "not at all" (13 percent) likely America would succeed. Contrast that with a May CBS survey where 55 percent said success was likely while 44 percent said it was not, or a March poll that showed just 51 percent saying success was likely compared with 47 percent who said it was not.

What to make of this avalanche of numbers? The majority of Americans still disapprove of the job the president is doing both generally and on a wide range of foreign and domestic issues. The death of Zarqawi is not likely to have any long-term effect on Americans' views on the war, which have largely cemented. But there has been some movement among voters who now see the possibility of a win in Iraq regardless of whether they believe the war was worth fighting. That news should boost the spirits of Republicans preparing for races this fall -- at least temporarily.

It will be interesting to look at Bush's numbers a month from now, after the public has had more time to assess Zarqawi's death. And then there's the president's trip to Baghdad this week and his press conference today, high-profile signs that the White House message machine is reinvigorated and intent on winning the political debate.

By Chris Cillizza  |  June 14, 2006; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  Parsing the Polls  
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