December 20, 2004

Public Opinion Little Changed by Presidential Election

Familiar Divides, Post-Election Disengagement

Summary of Findings

Six weeks after President Bush’s victory, the divisions that were so apparent in the election show no signs of narrowing. The public remains split over the president’s job performance, the situation in Iraq, and the state of the national economy. But Bush voters are upbeat on all three questions ­ 92% approve of the president’s job performance; 79% say the war effort is going well; and 58% give thumbs up on the economy. Those who voted for John Kerry are dramatically more negative, while those who did not vote fall between the two extremes.

While partisans continue to see the world through different lenses, the public appears less engaged with national and international news than it did prior to the election. In particular, the percentage following news about Iraq very closely has fallen to 34%, well below levels of engagement recorded over the last 12 months. Further, just 16% reported paying very close attention to the debate over revamping the nation’s intelligence system, while 10% focused closely on the contested election in Ukraine.

Recent stories about sports ­ revelations of steroid use in major league baseball and a brawl between NBA players and fans ­ as well as Scott Peterson’s murder conviction all drew more interest than reports on intelligence reform or the Ukraine crisis. Interest in the sports scandals and the Peterson case was on par with similar stories in the past.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Dec. 1-16 among 2,000 Americans, finds a continuing decline in public perceptions of the situation in Iraq. Just half see the military effort in Iraq going very or fairly well, while nearly as many (46%) say things are not going well. A year ago, following the capture of Saddam Hussein, 75% said things were going well in Iraq, while just 22% saw the situation in negative terms. Public perceptions of the situation in Iraq were this low only for a short period following the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the highly publicized murders of U.S. civilian contractors in Fallujah last April.

Interest in the situation in Iraq also has declined. In October, before the election, 42% of Americans said they were tracking the situation in Iraq very closely; in the current survey, that number has dropped to 34%, with attention down among both Democrats and Republicans.

Americans continue to be divided over whether taking military action in Iraq was the right or wrong decision. Despite the more negative perceptions of progress in Iraq, however, a 56% majority continues to say that the U.S. should keep military troops in Iraq until the situation has stabilized. That number has stayed fairly steady all year.

The president’s job approval rating has risen slightly since the election ­ currently 48% approve of his performance, up from 44% in mid-October. Overall presidential approval also has remained fairly stable over the past 10 months. But intensity of feelings about the president have increased slightly over the past year, mostly among those who disagree with him. The proportion who say they “very strongly” disapprove of the president’s job performance has risen from 30% to 35% from last November.

Only about four-in-ten Americans (39%) express satisfaction with national conditions, while 54% are dissatisfied. Satisfaction with the state of the nation has been below 40% since last January, hitting a low for the year at 33% in May. More than eight-in-ten Kerry voters (85%) say they are dissatisfied with the state of the nation, while just 10% are satisfied. Bush voters are overwhelmingly satisfied (71%), but a sizable minority (22%) have a negative view of national conditions. By 53%-40%, more non-voters say they are dissatisfied with the state of the nation.

While public interest is dipping, most Americans show at least some basic knowledge of what is happening in Iraq. Asked whether Iraq is scheduled to hold its first elections this winter, sometime in the spring or later this summer, fully 57% answered correctly that the elections will take place in winter (late January). And 43% of Americans were able to name Condoleezza Rice as Bush’s selection to replace Colin Powell as the next Secretary of State.

News Interest Index

Though attention to news from Iraq has decreased substantially, it tops this month’s list of major news items and, in a review of stories over the past year, Iraq news ranks second only to news about high gasoline prices in terms of the year’s most closely followed stories.

Just under a quarter of Americans (24%) closely followed the fistfight between players and fans at an NBA game and about the same number (22%) tracked reports on steroid use by some major leaguers very closely. One-in-five (215) say they very closely followed news about Scott Peterson’s conviction for the murder of his wife Laci. Both sports stories were followed much more closely by men than by women, while women payed more attention to the outcome of the Peterson trial.

Two major foreign news stories ­ the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and controversy over the results of the recent election in Ukraine were followed very closely by just 18% and 10%, respectively. Education is a major factor in interest in foreign news ­ 29% of Americans who have some post-graduate education closely followed news about Arafat’s death, almost twice the rate of those with no college education. Even so, just 19% of the post-graduate group followed the Ukraine election controversy very closely, though this again is roughly double the interest expressed by those with less education. By contrast, the Peterson verdict drew greater interest among those without a college education (25% very closely) than by those with post-graduate education (6%).

Gas Prices Top Story in ’04

News reports on high gasoline prices typically draw broad public attention, and that proved the case again this year. In October, 64% of Americans followed reports on gas prices very closely, making it the year’s top story in terms of public interest.

The situation in Iraq, which dominated the news last year, was the second-rated story in 2004 (54% very closely in May). But several specific developments in Iraq ­ including the failure to find weapons of mass destruction (37% very closely), and the prison abuse scandal (34% very closely) ­ also drew significant attention.

The series of hurricanes that struck the U.S. in late summer attracted strong interest from about half of Americans (52%). About the same number (48%) closely followed the massacre of scores of Russian schoolchildren by Chechen rebels, making it the top international story aside from the war in Iraq. The shortage of flu vaccines garnered very close attention from 44%, and four-in-ten followed reports about Ronald Reagan’s death and memorial services very closely.

Election News a Big Draw

Public interest in news about the 2004 election campaign was much higher than in 2000 or 1996. The percent following election news very closely rose from 14% in January to 46% in mid-October, two weeks before election day. When the analysis is limited to registered voters, fully 54% were following election news very closely by mid-October, up from 40% at a comparable point in the 2000 campaign, and just 34% in the days leading up to election day 1996. In recent years, only the 1992 election garnered as much public attention as the 2004 race.

Cite this publication: “Public Opinion Little Changed by Presidential Election.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (December 20, 2004) http://www.people-press.org/2004/12/20/public-opinion-little-changed-by-presidential-election/, accessed on July 22, 2014.