Out Of Politics, Up In The Polls

By Kathy Frankovic, CBS News director of surveys

What will Al Gore's Nobel Prize do for his future in politics?

Former presidents and vice presidents generally look better in retrospect than they do while in office. People forget their political assessments of an individual and focus instead on the positive, personal attributes that helped those men get elected in the first place.

But when an "elder statesman" turns back into a candidate, people change the basis for their assessments, and the positive opinions can shift back to partisan ones.

Walter Mondale was first a senator, then a vice president, then a (losing) candidate for President, and then - years later - a last-minute replacement candidate for a Minnesota Senate seat (he lost that race, too).

Mondale's trajectory in public opinion was pretty typical. Just before the 1980 election, when he and Jimmy Carter were about to lose to Ronald Reagan and George Bush, more than twice as many people had a favorable reaction to him as had an unfavorable one in CBS News Polls. Over the next few years, opinion changed little; although in late 1983, as the 1984 campaign began, and the public re-evaluated him as a candidate, unfavorable views began to grow. Three months into that campaign, after he struggled in the early primaries, more people held unfavorable views of him than favorable ones. While that settled back to an even split when Mondale won the nomination, it turned negative again in the fall.

Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton all became more popular after leaving office than they were while in the White House. Although Carter's recent statements against the current Bush administration could cause problems for him, his image wasn't hurt last February, on the publication of his controversial book "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid." In a Gallup/USA Today Poll that month, more than twice as many people held favorable views of Carter as held unfavorable ones (67 percent to 27 percent).

George H.W. Bush did nearly as well in that same poll (62 percent favorable, 36 percent unfavorable). So did Bill Clinton: 63 percent were favorable toward him, 35 percent were not.

Then there's Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey. Like Mondale (and Al Gore), they were former vice presidents who ran for president and lost. Nixon maintained a positive image in the years after 1960. According to a 1962 mid-year Gallup Poll, Americans had a favorable view of Nixon - and by a margin of 45 percent to 30 percent. The balance remained positive even after Nixon's loss in the 1962 California governor's race.

Time was not so kind to Hubert Humphrey, even after he lost the 1968 presidential race to Nixon. But that might have had more to do with the continued speculation that Humphrey would run again. In CBS News 1976 polls, more Americans had an unfavorable view of Humphrey than a favorable one. Only in 1984, after his death, did CBS News record a positive public assessment.

Like Humphrey, Gore has remained a possible presidential candidate; so there have only been moments since he left office where positive evaluations have outnumbered negative ones. When he was vice president his ratings were favorable - up until the time it was clear he would run to succeed Bill Clinton. By mid-1999, more Americans disliked him than liked him. Gore's favorable ratio peaked just after the Democratic Convention that nominated him, and he managed to maintain positive assessments until the election (In one early November 2000 CBS News/New York Times poll, 45 percent of registered voters were favorable, while 37 percent were not).

The election campaign may have been modestly good for Gore, but the 35 days afterwards were not. As the indecision dragged on, unfavorable assessments of Gore caught up to his favorable ones. Only after he gave up the contest - after his concession speech following the Supreme Court decision that ended the election - did positive evaluations rise - for a while. Then they fell back to post-election levels.

A brief positive moment followed Gore's receipt of an Oscar for his film "An Inconvenient Truth." It marked the first time since his 2000 concession that more people had a favorable image of him than a negative one. But the margin was narrow (37 percent were favorable, 32 percent were not), and a few weeks later, reverted to its usual mixed-to-negative pattern.

And now he's received the Nobel Peace Prize. The most recent CBS News poll, completed October 16, gives Gore some hope. His favorable rating has bounced up to 43 percent, and just 26 percent are unfavorable. Those ratings are just about the best he has received from the public since 2000.

But does this make a difference politically? Maybe not. The Gallup Poll sometimes includes Gore's name in their list of Democratic candidates for president. Just a week ago, only 10 percent chose him, putting him well behind Hillary Clinton's 43 percent and Barack Obama's 24 percent. That was down from 15 percent in August, 16 percent in July, and 18 percent in March. As Clinton's lead has increased, Gore apparently lost support, and even the Nobel hasn't changed that. And in the most recent USA Today/Gallup Poll, completed after the Nobel Prize victory, Gore was still the first choice of only 14 percent.

The odds are that Gore's Nobel Prize bump will go the way of the earlier rises in positive feelings. Still, with increased attention being given to climate change, and with Democratic voters now possibly taking a second look, who knows?
By Kathy Frankovic