John Kenneth Galbraith in Salon charted Bush's popularity in connection with crisis vs. "normalcy" back in February:
Last Saturday, Galbraith wrote a follow-up piece titled Coming to Our Senses? with an updated graph. Ashcroft predicted al Qaeda hitting us hard shortly after this was posted at Salon. It'll be interesting to see Galbraith's chart now, although the terror scare has already fallen off the front pages.
What is the message of these numbers? One stands out: In his entire first term, only three episodes so far have gained approval for Bush. All were related to terrorism and to war. They were 9/11, the war on Iraq, and the capture of Saddam. Taken together, the five months when Bush gained popularity on these events account for 89 percent of all the variation in the change of Bush's job approval, measured by the average of these polls.
Now we have four more months of data. They show an average decline, across nine polls, of 3.7 points in February, 1.8 points in March, 0.58 points in April and 2.4 points (with eight polls so far) in May. The average monthly decline is 2.1 percentage points. This occurred over the period when the Democrats selected John Kerry, and when the Bush campaign spent some $70 million on advertising to build up Bush and knock down Kerry. The perceptible effects: a fluctuation at best.
The figure below shows the evidence to date. Note the vertical line drawn to mark the time of the first experiment. Does the period afterward look different? A little more noisy, a little more variation between polls than is usual, perhaps. But the striking thing is how little the pattern has changed. If Bush's approval has a hardwood floor, we didn't hit it at 48, 47 or 46 percent. Things could still change. They could change if Bush fires Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld -- or even Vice President Cheney -- and remakes his government over the summer. There is talk of a possible al-Qaida attack on the Olympics in Athens. There is talk of terror at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions. And, of course, there is continuing chatter about the capture of Osama bin Laden. Whether any of these will happen, and how they will play, no one knows.
But the numbers so far suggest that the underlying political reality may be rooted in something else: that the public isn't paying that much attention, at least to the daily news -- or to the advertising.
Instead, Americans could be coming to a deeper judgment on Bush -- perhaps about his competence, or trustworthiness, or character. And we could be coming to that judgment as a whole people. It could be that we are not irrevocably divided down the middle between blues and reds. Maybe some of us just take a bit longer than others to think things through.
The statistics could mean something else. We'll keep looking as time passes. But if they mean what they appear to mean, and if the patterns hold up, it's not good news for Bush.