August 2, 2007

A Summer of Discontent with Washington

Clinton Widens Lead, Giuliani Slips

Summary of Findings

As official Washington winds down for its summer holiday, all three branches of government are coming under fire from the American public. Just 29% approve of the way President Bush is handling his job, and only slightly more, 33%, approve of the job performance of the Democratic leaders of Congress. Even the U.S. Supreme Court is not immune from the current round of public disaffection: The court’s favorable rating has fallen from 72% in January to 57% currently.

Opinion of all three institutions divides predictably along party lines — but even partisans offer comparatively modest support for both the President and the Democratic Congressional leadership. Bush’s approval rating stands at only 69% among Republicans and the Democratic leaders can claim just a 62% approval score among Democrats. In contrast, sizable majorities of independents disapprove of the job performance of the President and of Capitol Hill’s leadership.

Opinions about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are somewhat more positive than opinions of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The public divides about evenly on Pelosi: 35% approve of her job performance as Speaker, 37% disapprove and 28% cannot rate her. Reid is less well known and less well regarded — 21% approve of his performance as majority leader, 33% disapprove and 46% express no opinion.

The Democratic leadership is criticized as often by congressional critics for “not doing enough” as it is for “doing the wrong things.” Republicans cite the latter, while roughly equal proportions of political independents are concerned about one or the other. Democrats themselves criticize their leaders for not achieving enough.

While there is substantial criticism of the Democratic leadership, fully half of the public (50%) continues to say it is happy that the Democrats control Congress, according to the latest nationwide Pew Research Center for the People & the Press survey of 1,503 randomly selected adults conducted July 25-29. But, as many as 60% had said they were happy with impending Democratic control of the Congress in November, following the midterm elections.

Declining contentment with Democratic control of Congress tracks with ebbing confidence that Democratic leaders will be successful in passing legislation. Right after the election, 59% of the public thought they would be successful in doing so. That percentage dipped to 54% in March, and stands at just 43% in the current poll.

The Supreme Court’s ratings have slumped across the board since January, but the declines have been greater among Democrats and independents than among Republicans, who still have largely positive views of that institution. Fewer than half of Democrats (48%) now say they have a positive opinion of the court, down from 67% in January. Ratings also fell among independents over this period (from 74% to 58%). Most Republicans continue to hold a favorable opinion of the Supreme Court — but it, too, has slipped since the beginning of the year (from 81% to 72%).

Slightly more than one-in-three (36%) Americans say that President Bush has made the Supreme Court more conservative through his appointments to the bench, but a 41% plurality believes that he has not changed the balance of the court. Opinion about the ideological composition of the courts is highly dependent on a citizen’s ideological perspective.

Most liberals (55%) see the current court as conservative, and most say Bush has moved it farther to the right. The other side sees it quite differently. Only 24% of conservatives themselves think the Court is conservative, and just 30% think the Bush appointments have made the court more conservative. Opinions of political moderates fall between these two extremes.

Campaign Backlash Brewing?

Fewer than one-in-three citizens (30%) have given a lot of thought to the candidates running for president. That percentage has not changed markedly in recent months even though a large share of the public says they been paying at least some attention to campaign news generally1 and to the televised debates, specifically.

A backlash to the campaign may be part of the reason why there has been little increase in the public’s consideration of the candidates, even as many people are being exposed to the race. When Pew’s respondents were asked to come up with one word to describe the campaign, 52% gave a negative answer, 19% a positive one, and 10% offered a neutral phrase. Too early was the most frequently volunteered negative phrase, followed by confusing and long. Interesting was the most-cited positive word or phrase, followed by okay.

Democrats are slightly more attentive to the presidential campaign, and more often say they have given a lot of thought to the candidates than do Republicans. They also are more positive about the campaign than are Republicans. GOP malaise over the campaign is underscored by the fact that equal proportions of independents and Republicans have given a lot of thought to the candidates, a change in the typical pattern that finds independents to be the least engaged in the presidential campaign.

Debates Well Regarded

Possible backlash notwithstanding, the new survey finds as many as 40% of respondents say they have seen any of the debates. This is twice the percentage that recalled watching a debate between presidential candidates in January 2004, significantly later in the campaign cycle. And the debates get good reviews: About two-thirds (66%) report that they have been helpful in deciding whom to support and 47% say they have been fun to watch. Many more Democrats than Republicans say the debates have been helpful (81% to 55%) and fun (58% to 41%.)

By four-to-one (68% to 17%) the American public prefers debates that have regular people asking questions of the candidates over debates with journalists asking the questions. While the recent CNN/YouTube-sponsored debate that featured self-recorded questions submitted over the internet garnered substantial attention, most Americans did not judge the debate as substantially better than others they have seen.

Clinton Widens Lead, Giuliani Slips

Hillary Clinton now holds a nearly two-to-one lead over Barack Obama. The current survey finds 40% of registered Democrats and independents who lean Democratic say they would most like to see her nominated as their party’s presidential candidate. Obama is the choice of 21% while Al Gore is favored by 12% and John Edwards by 11%. Pew’s April survey had found Clinton with a more modest 34% to 24% lead over the Illinois senator. Over this period, support for the former first lady has increased most among independent Democrats, liberals and moderates, college graduates, middle-aged and older voters.

On the Republican side, Rudy Giuliani remains the top choice for the presidential nomination among 27% of all registered Republicans and GOP-leaning independents. The poll finds 18% favoring Fred Thompson, 16% John McCain and 10% Mitt Romney. Since April, Giuliani support has declined (32% to 27%) as has McCain’s (23% to 16%) while Thompson has gained significantly (10% to 18%.). Thompson has caught up to Giuliani among independents who lean Republican, as Giuliani’s support has fallen by half. But Giuliani remains the frontrunner among those who identify as Republicans, with no overall change in his support since April.

Iraq Not Shaping Candidate Preferences–So Far

At this early stage in the campaign, the poll finds little connection between candidate preferences and opinions about Iraq. Republicans who say they want the next Republican president to take a different course on Iraq than President Bush’s have similar views about the Republican field as those who do not want change. On the Democratic side, those who want Democratic Congressional leaders to challenge Bush more on Iraq hold the same candidate preferences as those who do not favor a more aggressive approach.

Contention Continues Over Iraq

Opinions about the war in Iraq remain entrenched as Washington braces for a new round of reports on the war scheduled for release in early September. By 63% to 29% the public wants their congressional representative to vote for a bill that calls for withdrawal from Iraq next year. And there continues to be considerable public reluctance to compromise. On balance, supporters of a timeline say they want their representatives to insist on that position rather than working on a compromise with President Bush. Opponents of the timeline are equally adamant: Most do not want President Bush to compromise with Democratic leaders.

The poll finds little change in basic opinions about Iraq from earlier in the year: a 53% majority believes the U.S. made the wrong decision in going to war and 59% thinks the war is not going well. By a margin of 49% to 43% the public now concludes the U.S. will fail rather than succeed in achieving its goals in Iraq. Democrats and Republicans express fundamentally different opinions on all of these points, and political independents come closer to the views of Democrats than to Republicans.

Public confidence in the Iraqi government, already low in previous years, has continued to fall. Nearly nine-in-ten say the government of Iraq is doing only a fair job (44%) or a poor job (40%) of running the country. A majority of Americans now believe that the people of Iraq do not support America’s policies.

  1. For more on public attention to the campaign and other stories in the news, see the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press' weekly news interest index results.