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President Bush's Approval Ratings.

President Bush's approval ratings: they have taken a meaningful hit over the past few months.

Well, sort of.

Looking at the Gallup Poll, the slump is really not all that spectacular:

Similarly, take a look at the ABC NEWS/WASHINGTON POST poll from the past year:


Just a month after the 2004 election, President Bush's approval rating was lower than his disapproval rating. That, right there, should signal a bit of fishiness regarding the effectiveness of this particular polling organization at gauging the American electorate.

The President's recent downturn is not all that momentous in the grand scheme of things and may even be wholly attributable to shoddy work on the part of pollsters.

Nonetheless, the pundits are all speculating about it.

Some believe the answer is not event-driven, but rather the survey samples are not truly representative of the American electorate:

...while the 2004 exit polls showed that the parties were at parity among voters, the sample in this poll is not; it includes 35% Democrats and 28% Republicans– a 7 point advantage for Democrats.

In the 2004 election, the party breakdown was 37% Republican, 37% Democrat, and 26% Independent. Partisanship, as political scientists understand, is just far too stable to move so dramatically in such a short time. Typically, partisanship moves slowly, based on factors such as generational replacement, only shifting significantly during major times of crisis or scandal.

Thus, it's very likely that the polls themselves, to the small extent they even indicate a drop in President Bush's approval, are bunk.

But let's assume they aren't bunk. What could be the cause(s) of the decline?


Fred Barnes believes Bush's poll drop is related to Social Security, and he believes the President should cut and run on the issue.


Micky Kaus calls it a "semi-mysterious slump."


Still others believe that President Bush's immigration policies are causing an erosion of his base.


But the most prominent "flavor of the month" justification for President Bush's slip in the polls:

"It's the theocons, stupid."

Immediately following the 2004 election, something resembling mass hysteria broke out amongst pundits over exit poll results that indicated Bush won the election because of moral values. After a month or so, the rabid lather of hyperbole and confusion evolved into a more reasoned consensus, as people realized that national security issues were the real driving factor behind the election.

Glenn Reynolds (instapundit) has bought into the notion that Americans are uncomfortable with the rise of the religious right [You might be asking yourself: "What rise of the religious right? Where's the proof?"]:

The Republicans' weakness is that people worry that they're the party of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. They tried, successfully, to convince people otherwise in the last election, but they're now acting in ways that are giving those fears new life.

What does "now acting in ways that are giving those fears new life" mean, anyway? For Reynolds and many others (like Matthew Dowd), it all boils down to the Terri Schiavo fiasco.

So, because many Republicans and Democrats took measures to save Terri Schiavo, Republicans get nailed, politically?

Not buying it.

More than anything, the circus around Terri Schiavo allowed the media, socially liberal Republicans (or, perhaps, libertarian-leaning GOPers), and Democrats all to revive the dormant narrative that the Republican Party would impose a theocracy upon America if it could. This narrative is absurd, of course. The "Terri Schiavo-related" political hysteria is more fad than anything.

America's foremost political expert, Michael Barone, agrees that this fear and loathing about an impending imposition of theocracy is a "silly" diversion:

America is too diverse and freedom-loving for that. But it does mean that we're probably not headed to the predominantly secular society that liberals predicted half a century ago and that Europe has now embraced.

So, what is the cause of the slump?

It's not as exciting as you might think.

Last October, professors Suzanna De Boef of Penn State and Paul M. Kellstedt of Texas A&M published "The Political (and Economic) Origins of Consumer Confidence" in the American Journal of Political Science. They noted the high correlation between the economic approval and the overall approval rating of the President:


Notice how closely the relation holds over time, only diverging during "rally-round-the-flag" times of international crisis.

But it doesn't end there. Suzanna De Boef and Paul M. Kellstedt, in looking at all the data from 1981-2000, find that there is a strong correlation between the Consumer Sentiment Index and the economic approval rating of the President:

...for every five percentage point gain in economic approval ratings, consumer sentiment goes up an average of one point.

Consumer sentiment recently slipped to its lowest point in 18 months, despite solid GDP growth and nearly two straight years of monthly job gains.



Consumer sentiment is generally rational, but 25% is determined by irrational factors. Indeed, in the short-run, consumer sentiment can behave erratically, but it typically settles down at a rational point:

Shocks to the economy-like the Enron scandal-may temporarily depress consumer sentiment, creating disequilibrium with economic conditions, economic approval, and the federal funds rate. But consumer sentiment will adjust, moving back toward equilibrium (growing) at a rate of about one-third per month, virtually disappearing after about four months (all else held constant).

De Boef and Kellstedt also note that the media plays a rather large role in all of this:

When news coverage is positive, citizens give favorable evaluations, leading to more positive sentiment.

Bush's recent drop (as mild as it truly has been) is based on gas price worries. Maybe not even the gas prices themselves, but the reporting of them.

Ever watch the local and network news? Despite the rise of talk radio, cable news, and the internet, most Americans still get their news from local and network news. What story has dominated the news over the past couple of months?

Stories about high gas prices.

The Washington Post has a similar "consumer comfort index," and if you follow its ups and downs, you'll notice it predicts Presidential approval, spot-on:


Recent negative movement in how Americans view the economy (much of which is a result of incessant reporting about high gas prices) has caused President Bush's approval rating slump.

Although Mr. Reynolds is too quick to believe, and perpetuate, the "the GOP is going to split because of the theocons" thesis, this point is absolutely dead-on:

...if [Bush] had a 60% approval rating, or even a 53% approval rating, he'd be making more progress on Social Security reform and on his various nominations.

Absolutely. But the last time Bush's approval was above 60% was early August, 2003, just prior to the beginning of the Democrats' primary season.

Bottom line:

Don't buy the hype about Bush's approval ratings being the result of a backlash against the events surrounding Terri Schiavo. It's the economy, or, more specifically, gasoline prices, that have people hot and bothered.

Having studied the numbers extensively from every angle, it is clear that the Consumer Sentiment Index is the single-greatest contributing factor to rises and falls in the President's approval rating. Only during times of international crisis is the economy relegated to second-fiddle. Currently, Americans have once again made the economy their number one priority, after a few years of War-On-Terror preeminence. Because the economic news seems so dire, based on a cursory survey of the media's reporting, people are responding negatively.

Still, because of demographics and other factors, Republicans remain in good shape to add seats in both chambers of Congress in 2006; afterall, it is a "mindless assumption that unhappiness with one major party translates into happiness with the other."

Posted by Will Franklin · 27 April 2005 02:55 PM


G.W.Bush could do a much better job if the Libs would let him.

Posted by: Hal at April 27, 2005 05:09 PM

Remember what the polls said when G.W.Bush and Kerry were running?... I think sometimes the liberal media like to translate the polls in their own special way. George W. Bush is truly a fearless leader! He works hard against a constant battle from the left!... I don't care what any of the polls say, I believe he is a Great Leader and I am truly thankful our country has him!... Oh! MY! Gosh! think of what we could have had instead. . .

Posted by: Zsa Zsa at April 27, 2005 05:27 PM

Just think if Al Gore were our President, and everyone can be very thankful we have George W. Bush!... Thank you God!...Amen!

Posted by: Zsa Zsa at April 27, 2005 05:55 PM

The numbers don't mean much.

Bush was re-elected solely due to his handling of Iraq/War on Terror- in spite of conservative-libertarian discontent over issues like McCain-Feingold, NCLB, prescription drugs thru Medicare, illegal immigration, the Assault Weapons Ban, excessive gov't spending, Patriot Act, etc. ad nauseam...

Then, the Iraqi elections exceeded all expectations...

Bush immediately loses his biggest favorable issue... and is now judged mainly on his domestic agenda--- (which the MSM can still spin negatively)--- and the idiots in Congress(DeLay, Frist, Santorum, etc.) who can't shoot straight...

Posted by: Fletch at April 27, 2005 09:06 PM

If gas prices go down Bush's ratings will magically go up.

Posted by: Jack T at April 28, 2005 07:38 AM