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Posted at 11:55 AM ET, 05/ 8/2008

How Unpopular Is George Bush?

By Michael Dobbs

Karl Rove and friend.
Columbus, Ohio: You boldly predicted that Bush's approval ratings would rebound -- instead he is, according to Gallup, the most unpopular president in history. Will you finally admit that your vision for this nation has been overwhelmingly rejected by the majority of the people?
Karl Rove: Get your facts right -- there are at least three president who had worse approval ratings, Truman, Johnson and Nixon. I'm absolutely positive history will be kind to this president, who made the right decisions in a difficult time for this nation.
--Karl Rove online washingtonpost.com chat, May 7, 2008

Karl Rove, the much-acclaimed "architect" of George W. Bush's 2000 and 2004 election victories, claimed that a Washington Post reader got his facts wrong during an online discussion Wednesday. But the Gallup organization does indeed report that Bush's disapproval rating reached an all-time high of 69 percent in April, the highest figure ever recorded for a president.

The Facts

In his reply to "Columbus, Ohio," Karl Rove cited the "approval ratings" -- not the disapproval ratings -- of presidents Truman, Johnson and Nixon. According to Gallup, it is true that several former presidents recorded lower approval ratings than Bush. Bush's approval rating sunk to an all-time low of 28 percent in April.

Nixon's approval rating sunk to 24 percent in July 1974, at the height of the Watergate scandal. Truman's rating bottomed out at 22 percent in February 1952, as he was buffeted from the fallout from the unpopular Korean War and a poor economy. Jimmy Carter reached a low of 28 percent -- roughly the same as Bush -- during the gasoline shortages in the summer of 1979.

When it comes to disapproval ratings, however, Bush holds the record, according to Gallup. With a disapproval rating of 69 percent, he is two points clear of Harry Truman, at 67 percent, during the height of the Korean War.

President Dates of poll Disapproval rating (%)
George W. Bush April 2008 69
Harry Truman January 1952 67
Richard Nixon August 1974 66

SOURCE: Gallup Ratings

So why does Bush score a little better (or at any rate not quite so bad) on his approval ratings as on his disapproval ratings? There are two possible explanations, according to Gallup. One is that he is a "more polarizing" figure than his predecessors. Only 4 percent of the electorate is "undecided" about Bush, compared with 13 percent about Nixon and 14 percent about Truman. Bush still has a basic bedrock of support among 28 percent of the electorate.

The other explanation lies in the way polls are conducted. These days, they are done primarily over the phone. Under Nixon and Truman, pollsters visited people's houses for in-person interviews. Frank Newport of Gallup hypothesizes that Americans have become more willing to express negative opinions about the president to anonymous pollsters over the phone than they were in person.

As for the matter of how Bush will be judged by historians, according to a recent poll, 61 percent of historians questioned in a recent poll described him as "the worst president in history." A huge 98 percent declared that his presidency would be judged a failure.

Of course, the judgment of history can always change...

The Pinocchio Test

"Columbus, Ohio" was right. According to Gallup, George W. Bush has higher disapproval ratings than any modern-day president. I am still waiting for an explanation from Rove. I am prepared to revisit the question if he gets back to me but, for now, three Pinocchios.

(About our rating scale.)

By Michael Dobbs  | May 8, 2008; 11:55 AM ET
Categories:  History, Verdict Pending, Web Watch  
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