I just discovered something remarkable about George Bush’s approval ratings. The conventional wisdom is that in his second term he has been about the most unpopular president ever (less often mentioned is that in his first term he was about the most popular president ever!). That’s true. The usual implications are that he’s been a failure and would not be re-elected.
Neither implication follows. The key is to realize that approval ratings are based on the opinions of not only the President’s own party, but on the opposition. Thus, a president who gets 51% of the vote could be completely successful in getting all his policies carried out and enjoy high support from his supporters, but end up with a very low approval rating by having extremely low popularity with the 49% who voted against him. In fact, it isn’t even voters– the best informed and smartest citizens– who are polled about presidential approval. Thus, years of disparaging remarks by TV people, who are those 49%, will especially hurt approval ratings.
How does this apply to George Bush? Gallup has the George Bush data in useful form, with comparisons of overall ratings to other presidents. His December 12-14, 2008 approval ratings is 29%, worse even than Truman’s December 1952 32% and much worse than the 51% average for the 31st quarter of two-term president’s since FDR.
But now look at his approval ratings with Republicans and Democrats separately. In December 12-14 2008 Bush had an approval ratings of 67% from his own party, 25% from unaffiliated citizens, and just 7% from the opposition party. Hence the average of 29%. (Numbers are from here.) His lowest ratings from Republicans were in October 3-5 2008, when the ratings were 55-19-5. His lowest ratings from Democrats were in three other polls in September and October 2008, when he fell to amazing 3%.
If we look just at approval from the president’s own party, how does Bush stack up against previous presidents? Jeffrey M. Jones has a good Gallup article on the subject. It turns out that Bush does worse than Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Reagan; about the same as Clinton, George HW Bush, and Ford; and better than Johnson, Carter, and Nixon. Carter did the worst, with only a 34% approval rating from his own party in 1979. Carter, however, did much better among Republicans than Bush does with Democrats.
While discouraging for Bush, his 60% approval rating among his natural political base is similar to the low points for several recent presidents, including Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Gerald Ford. Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy never had very low overall approval ratings, so even their lowest ratings among their own party were still quite high (above 70%). While Ronald Reagan’s job approval rating among all Americans did fall as low as 35% overall, Republicans’ approval of him never fell below 67%.
Carter is the president with the dubious distinction of having the lowest job approval rating from his own party since 1953, when Gallup began to compile presidential approval ratings by party affiliation. Only 34% of Democrats approved of Carter in a pair of 1979 Gallup Polls. Carter’s overall ratings at that time were similar to Bush’s current overall ratings, but his ratings were not nearly as polarized along party lines as Bush’s are: He did much better among Republicans than Bush is doing now among Democrats, while doing slightly better among independents than Bush is currently doing.
Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon also had troubled presidencies and are the only other presidents whose approval among their party’s supporters fell below 50%.
One possible conclusion is that Bush’s overall popularity rating is so low precisely because he has been so effective that he has enraged the opposition more than any president in living memory. Nobody really believes that, though. Rather, he has had moderate success, but his personality and style have generated Bush Hating that has an almost psychotic quality to it, and that hatred’s strength among even the influential opposition leaders have carried their followers along with it.