Despite polls showing otherwise, media continue to assert U.K. terror arrests help Bush's approval ratings

››› ››› JULIE MILLICAN

Since the recent U.K. terrorism arrests, numerous media outlets have suggested that the news would help increase President Bush's approval in the polls. In fact, the three major polls at least partially conducted since the arrests show little or no improvement in Bush's overall job approval rating.

Since the recent arrests in the United Kingdom of several suspects reportedly plotting an attack using liquid explosives on U.S.-bound international flights, numerous media outlets have suggested that the news would help lift President Bush's approval ratings, without any consideration of whether news of these arrests could actually hurt Bush or have a negligible impact on his political standing, as Media Matters for America has noted. In fact, the three major polls at least partially conducted since the arrests show little or no improvement in Bush's overall job approval rating, and in only one -- an August 12 Newsweek poll -- did approval of his handling of terrorism improve measurably. Yet some in the media continue to report the arrests as a boon to Bush, by either ignoring the contrary polling or citing poll results selectively.

During the August 15 edition of MSNBC News Live, anchor Contessa Brewer ignored polling, asserting that "the American people seem to be giving him [Bush] some of that support, because here -- while they've had a real big problem with the war in Iraq -- the terror bust happens, the president gets a bump in the polls." Nor did Fred Barnes, Weekly Standard executive editor and co-host of Fox News' The Beltway Boys, seem to bother with polls, simply stating on the August 15 edition of Fox News Live that the breakup of the alleged terrorist plot "can be a windfall ... for the president and his party." Correspondent Kathleen Koch appeared to be referring only to the Newsweek poll and ignoring other polling when she stated on the August 15 edition of CNN's Live From ... that "polls have shown that many Americans are also now, because of that foiled plot, giving high marks to the president for his handling of homeland security." And, as blogger (and Media Matters senior fellow) Duncan Black noted, her broader claim appears simply to be false when she stated: "His job approval ratings have risen as well." Also on CNN, during the August 15 edition of The Situation Room, White House correspondent Ed Henry cited the Newsweek poll to broadly assert that "the president's numbers are up." But even according to that poll, Bush's overall job-approval rating is not up significantly, and Henry ignored two other polls showing no change in Bush's job-approval ratings.

Although the Newsweek poll found "an 11-point boost since May" in approval of Bush's handling of terrorism and homeland security, up from 44 percent to 55 percent, Bush's overall job ratings in the poll went up only 3 points -- from 35 percent in May to 38 percent, within the poll's margin of error. CBS' latest poll -- conducted August 11-13 -- shows Bush's latest overall job-approval rating at 36 percent, unchanged since July, and no change in his approval rating on his handling of terrorism: According to the CBS poll, 51 percent approve of Bush's handling of terrorism, while 43 percent disapprove; the July CBS poll had found that 51 percent approved and 42 percent disapproved of Bush's handling of the war on terror. Similarly, the most recent Gallup poll (subscription required), released August 15, also showed no substantial movement in Bush's overall job approval and did not provide results on his handling of terrorism. Indeed, that poll, conducted August 7-10, indicated that Bush's overall approval rating decreased from 40 percent to 37 percent since Gallup last asked the question in July, within the poll's 3-point margin of error. Although the Gallup poll was conducted both before and after the announcement of the latest terror arrests in the United Kingdom, the poll's analysis read: "[I]nterviews conducted after the news [of the U.K. arrests] became public were only slightly more favorable to Bush than those conducted before," and "the initial indications are that" the news of the arrests "will not help much." Both the CBS and Newsweek polls were conducted after the August 10 announcement of the arrests.

Moreover, the polls showed no gain for Republicans either on the question of which party the public trusts more to handle terrorism or on the question of which party the public prefers to run Congress. The August CBS poll found that "[t]he recent terrorism threat has also had little effect" on the public's preference for Republicans in addressing terrorism concerns. While Republicans hold an 8-point advantage on the issue (42 percent to 34 percent), according to the CBS poll, the Republicans' edge has remained virtually unchanged in the past month. The Newsweek poll yielded similar results, finding that 44 percent of those polled trust Republicans more to handle terrorism, compared with the 39 percent who prefer Democrats. Newsweek also noted that Democrats have made significant gains on the issue since the last midterm elections when "the Republicans held a 23-point lead over the Democrats, according to the Oct. 24-25 NEWSWEEK Poll that year."

Democrats continue to hold an advantage when respondents are asked which party they prefer to control Congress. The Newsweek poll found that "53 percent of Americans would like to see the Democrats win control of Congress, compared to just 34 percent who want the Republicans to retain control." The percentage of those polled by Newsweek who prefer Democratic control of Congress has actually increased 1 point since May, and these numbers are similar to recent polling by other outlets conducted before the U.K. terror arrests, which have also shown the public's apparently strong preference for Democratic congressional candidates.

From the August 15 edition of MSNBC News Live:

BREWER: It was subtle, but even subtly, the president brings in the tie with the war on terror to the war in Iraq. Why does the administration keep insisting on tying these two issues together?

KEN WALSH (U.S. News & World Report White House correspondent): Well, the war in Iraq -- the Democrats have been actually pretty effective recently in separating them, in saying the war in Iraq is a separate issue from the war on terror, that whatever we did -- whatever the arguments were for getting into Iraq in the first place, the administration has extended -- overextended the military there, committed so much money, so many of our troops there, that it's hurting the war on terror. Now, the White House very vigorously disputes this. But what the president was trying to do there is to say that this is all of a piece, this is all part of his war on terror and the Democrats don't understand the extent of this -- the global reach of this war on terror.

And as you say, I think some Americans -- more and more Americans, in fact -- are wondering about the connection. And -- but the president is trying to constantly reinforce the idea that the war on terror and the war in Iraq are connected.

BREWER: But it's odd, Ken, because you know, Jay Severin, who's a conservative radio show host, was on Imus this morning, and he said he had right-wingers calling in and they were just furious, that they felt like the president was tying these two issues together again -- tying together the war in Iraq with the greater war on terror. I'm wondering, the president has brought in a lot of new advisers here over the past year or so. Are there any insiders who believe that it would be a mistake for the president to keep tying the war in Iraq with the war on terror?

WALSH: No, I think there's pretty much unanimity in this White House that he has to do that. The war on terror is one of the few areas where the president remains popular and his policies remain supported by the public. The war in Iraq is not. So, the closer that he can connect them, according to the White House theory, the more support he might get for the war in Iraq.

BREWER: And you know, the American people seem to be giving him some of that support, because here -- while they've had a real big problem with the war in Iraq -- the terror bust happens, the president gets a bump in the polls. You know, are the American people themselves, however, internally still making that connection as well?

WALSH: I think many people are. But I think there's a tremendous fatigue with the war in Iraq right now and with the war on terror. But people, I think, are willing to put up with the kind of things we've been seeing -- that you've been covering -- at airports and so on if they think it's going to do some good in protecting them. The question with Iraq is that it seems more distant from the whole notion of protecting the homeland. And that's what the president is trying to keep hammering at, trying to bring us back to the idea that, in his mind, the war on terror is in Iraq. He's keeping the bad guys -- more or less -- out, away from the country. Now that's a very disputed premise. But this is what -- a lot of what's going on in Washington at the White House this week.

From the August 15 edition of CNN's Live From ... :

KOCH: Yes, [anchor] Kyra [Phillips], the president right now is in the middle of five hours of meetings at the super-secret national counterterrorism center in Virginia, and obviously terrorism foremost on the minds of many people in the world, both in the United States and Great Britain with the foiled terror plot last week. And polls have shown that many Americans are also now, because of that foiled plot, giving high marks to the president for his handling of homeland security. His job-approval ratings have risen as well.

From the August 15 edition of Fox News' Fox News Live:

QUINN: Are we seeing a White House strategy here? The president in his comments today, his comments yesterday, any sort of a strategy to really make that security the number one issue for the coming midterm elections?

BARNES: Well, of course. I mean, this is a -- this issue is the one that was the strongest issue for Republicans and for President Bush in 2002 and 2004, and they'd love to have a repeat in 2006, particularly because almost every other issue that comes up favors the Democrats this year, so this can be a windfall through this terrorist plot that was broken up, for the president and his party. And I think they're going to try to take advantage of that.

From the August 15 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:

HENRY: Wolf, today, it was day 2 of the president's summer tour of all the national security agencies. You'll remember yesterday, he was rolling up his sleeves at the Defense and State departments. Today -- huddled for five hours at the super-secret National Counterterror Center. The point here is that with the war on terror expected to be the defining issue of the midterm elections, the president was quick to take credit with foiling this terror plot to try to take over 10 airliners headed from the U.K. to the United States, and secondly, the president is trying to drive home the point that even while it's August, with all these hot issues going on, he's working this time. He's not on vacation, unlike last summer when he took a political hit for slowly reacting to Hurricane Katrina. Take a listen to the president.

[...]

HENRY: The point here is that there's a new Newsweek poll -- 55 percent of Americans now approve of the president's handling of the war on terror, up from 44 percent in May. Of course, an 11-point increase for the president. When you look at the numbers on issues like Iraq, the president does not fare as well, but when you talk about the broader war on terror, the president's numbers are up. So, between now and November, you're going to hear both the president and vice president try to drive that home again and again.

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