Can Voters Be Objective About The Economy?

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This column was written by CBS News director of surveys Kathy Frankovic.


It's unusual for a majority of Democrats to approve of a Republican president: for President Bush, that hasn't happened since July 2002, ten months after the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks. And, at least in recent years, it's even more rare for a majority of Republicans to express approval of a Democrat. They gave Bill Clinton only one brief run-up into positive approval numbers - and that was at a rather unexpected time.

The big question is: when voters make decisions about presidents, about how things are going in the country and about policy, are they making an objective assessment, or are they expressing an opinion to which they are already predisposed - and which is expected?

Both Barack Obama and John McCain say they hope to transcend partisan divisions. And in the primaries, they frequently drew higher support from people who did not identify with each man's party than with those who did.

In January, Obama laid out a plan for what he called "big changes [that could bring together] a whole host of Republicans, and certainly independents, who have lost trust in their government, who don't believe anybody is listening to them, who are staggering under rising costs … a working majority for change."

John McCain also seeks out votes - and comments - from non-Republicans: "I really believe," he said at about the same time, "that Presidents run into difficulties when they don't communicate all the time with the American people."

It's not just assessments of a president himself that exhibit a partisan cast. Republicans frequently oppose military action when Democrats are in office, while Democrats object to military action under Republicans. The economy, likewise, separates partisans.

In August, 2000, Americans were asked about the state of their family's finances, and what had happened to them since Bill Clinton had become President. The question made an explicit link to the Democratic President, but the differences could not have been more stark. Sixty-two percent of Democrats said their families were better off than they had been eight years before, compared with only 2 percent of Republicans.

Did Clinton's policies really discriminate against Republicans? Or was this just another example of the partisan polarization that we have seen in the last few decades? Apparently, it was a little bit of both. Only 10% of Republicans said they actually were worse off. Instead, a majority answered that their family's financial situation hadn't changed much in the past eight years.

If we look at economic assessments today, we find large partisan differences in the other direction: more Democrats than Republicans saying they're worse off. But when 83 percent of Americans in general (and 59 percent of Republicans) tell us in the latest CBS News Poll that they believe things in the country have "gotten pretty seriously off on the wrong track" not many people are feeling good about the economy.

But those who are feeling good about the economy are likely to be Republican: 37 percent of Republicans say the national economy is in good condition, compared with just 9 percent of Democrats. Half of Republicans say their household income is more than enough to pay their bills and even save or buy extras. Only a quarter of Democrats say that. Fifty-three percent of Republicans say they have been impacted by recent price increases in gasoline, compared with 69 percent of Democrats. On these questions, Independents look just like Democrats: 30 percent say they can pay their bills and save or buy extras, and 70 percent of them say they have been affected by high gas prices.

Republicans do make more money than Democrats (just 17 percent have family incomes under $30,000 a year, compared with 26 percent of Democrats). But that doesn't explain all the differences.

Independents could have a more objective sense of economic concerns, and they respond the way Democrats do to these questions. It may just be that Republicans are viewing the economic world through partisan rose-colored glasses.

It takes a crisis for people to take off those partisan-tinted glasses. And overcoming partisanship was especially hard for many when it came to George W. Bush. Since he'd come into office after a hotly contested election that dragged on for 35 days after it was supposed to be over, Democrats gave him no honeymoon. Just weeks after he was inaugurated, his approval rating among Democrats was only 32 percent. The events of September 2001 briefly brought him bi-partisan support, as his overall approval rating soared towards 90 percent. In the weeks immediately after 9/11, it reached over 80 percent among Democrats.

But by March of 2003, a few days before President Bush launched the Iraq War, only 37 percent of Democrats approved of the way he was handling his job. And only a few more rallied to his side when the war started. CBS News interviewed those same Democrats just as the war began, and only 49 percent approved. The war start had little impact on Republicans too, but they didn't need to improve their assessment: their pre-war approval rating was already 87 percent.

It was during a different kind of crisis that Democrat Bill Clinton hit his highest approval rating with Republicans. Amazingly, that was right after his State of the Union Address in January 1998 - the one that he gave in the wake of the first reports about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. In a CBS News Poll taken after that address, 52 percent of Republicans approved of the way he was handling his job. It was a level of approval he had not seen before from Republicans, and one that he was never to see again!
By Kathy Frankovic
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