A Polling Free-Fall Among Blacks

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, October 13, 2005; 3:09 PM

In what may turn out to be one of the biggest free-falls in the history of presidential polling, President Bush's job-approval rating among African Americans has dropped to 2 percent, according to a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.

The drop among blacks drove Bush's overall job approval ratings to an all-time low of 39 percent in this poll. By comparison, 45 percent of whites and 36 percent of Hispanics approve of the job Bush is doing.

A few months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found Bush's approval rating among blacks at 51 percent. As recently as six months ago, it was at 19 percent.

But Bush's bungled response to Hurricane Katrina -- seen by many blacks as evidence that he didn't care about them (see my September 13 column ) -- may have brought support for the president in the African American community down to nearly negligible levels.

Tim Russert called attention to this startling statistic on the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams yesterday: "Brian, listen to this," he said. "Only 2 percent -- 2 percent! -- of African-Americans approve of George Bush's handling of the presidency -- the lowest we have ever seen in that particular measure."

So this morning, I called Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who conducted the survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff, to get a better sense of the significance of the results.

"African Americans were not supporters, but I don't think that they outright detested him -- until now," Hart said. "The actions in and around Katrina persuaded African Americans that this was a president who was totally insensitive to their concerns and their needs."

Hart said he has never seen such a dramatic drop in presidential approval ratings, within any subgroup.

This latest poll included 807 people nationwide, and only 89 blacks. As a result, there is a considerable margin or error -- and the findings should not be considered definitive until or unless they are validated by other polls.

David Bositis, a senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which tracks African American public opinion, told me this morning that it's clear that Bush's job approval among blacks "has taken a hit from both the ongoing things in Iraq and what happened with Katrina."

But down to 2 percent? "I doubt that it's actually 2," he said.

"But would I be surprised if it's 10 or 12? No." And 10, he said, is typically "about as low as you can go" when it comes to approval ratings.

The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, released September 13, about two weeks after Katrina hit, found Bush's job approval among blacks at 14 percent, compared to 42 percent among the general population. Exit polls showed that 11 percent of black voters voted for Bush in November 2004.

[Late Update: The Pew Research Center is just out with its latest poll, which has a larger sample, and it finds Bush's approval rating among blacks at 12 percent, down only slightly from 14 in July. Here are those results .]

More from the Poll

Mark Murray writes for NBC News: "It has been weeks since Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast; since gas prices began spiking to record highs; and since Cindy Sheehan, whose son was killed in Iraq, held her antiwar vigil outside President Bush's Texas ranch. But, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, the fortunes of the Bush administration and the Republican Party have not yet begun to recover.

"For the first time in the poll, Bush's approval rating has sunk below 40 percent, while the percentage believing the country is heading in the right direction has dipped below 30 percent. In addition, a sizable plurality prefers a Democratic-controlled Congress, and just 29 percent think Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers is qualified to serve on the nation's highest court.

John Harwood writes in the Wall Street Journal: "The American public, concluding that President Bush values friendship and party loyalty over qualifications in his appointments, is less supportive of Harriet Miers's Supreme Court nomination than the earlier choice of Chief Justice John Roberts.

"A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows Americans are reserving judgment on Ms. Miers, the White House counsel, who last week became Mr. Bush's choice to succeed Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who is retiring. Some 27% support her confirmation and 21% oppose it, while 51% say they don't know enough to say. . . .

"By 40%-24%, Americans say her long service to the president makes them feel less positive about her potential court service."

And, Harwood writes: "Looming over Mr. Bush's second term is what Mr. McInturff calls a 'very difficult, sour' public mood. Just 28% of Americans say the nation is heading in 'the right direction,' the lowest figure in nearly 10 years, according to the Journal/NBC survey."

Here are the overall results of the poll. The cross tabs, showing results by race and party, are not included.

Looking at the latest crop of presidential polls, Catholic University Professor John Kenneth White recently wrote for pollingreport.com that "for the remainder of his presidency, George W. Bush will govern without the consent of the governed."

Mired in Religion

Here's a two-part question for Harriet Miers: Are you, like John Roberts, willing to state unequivocally that your faith and your religion will not play a role in your judicial decisions? If so, why are Bush and Karl Rove telling everyone how religious you are?

And here's a two-part question for you readers: Do you really believe that neither Bush nor Rove know Miers' position on Roe v. Wade? And do you really believe that they aren't trying to telegraph that to the religious right?

Anyway, here's what Bush had to contribute to the maelstrom yesterday, in a photo op after meeting with the Polish president.

"Q Thank you, Mr. President. Why do people in this White House feel it's necessary to tell your supporters that Harriet Miers attends a very conservative Christian church? Is that your strategy to repair the divide that has developed among conservatives over her nominee?

"PRESIDENT BUSH: People ask me why I picked Harriet Miers. They want to know Harriet Miers' background; they want to know as much as they possibly can before they form opinions. And part of Harriet Miers' life is her religion. Part of it has to do with the fact that she was a pioneer woman and a trailblazer in the law in Texas. I remind people that Harriet Miers is one of the -- has been rated consistently one of the top 50 women lawyers in the United States. She's eminently qualified for the job. And she has got a judicial philosophy that I appreciate; otherwise I wouldn't have named her to the bench, which is -- or nominated her to the bench -- which is that she will not legislate from the bench, but strictly interpret the Constitution."

Peter Baker and Charles Babington write in The Washington Post: "President Bush said yesterday that it was appropriate for the White House to invoke Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers's religion in making the case for her to skeptical conservatives, triggering a debate over what role, if any, her evangelical faith should play in the confirmation battle."

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "President Bush prompted criticism from the right and the left on Wednesday after he said White House officials had told conservative supporters about the religious beliefs of his latest Supreme Court nominee, Harriet E. Miers, as part of an 'outreach effort' to explain who she is. . . .

"The White House efforts to promote Ms. Miers's faith were criticized on Wednesday not only by groups on the left and the right, but also by Senator Richard J. Durbin, the Illinois Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. Some religious conservatives denounced Mr. Durbin when he tried to have a private discussion with Chief Justice Roberts about their shared Catholic religion during Chief Justice Roberts's confirmation process.

" 'The White House is basically saying that because of Harriet Miers's religious beliefs, you can trust her,' Mr. Durbin said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. 'That to me is a complete reversal not only of the history of choosing Supreme Court nominees, but of where the White House was weeks ago with the nomination of John Roberts.' "

Maura Reynolds writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Bush previously has stressed his knowledge of her character, but this was the first time he publicly referred to her faith when asked about picking her. . . .

"After Bush's comments Wednesday, White House spokesman Scott McClellan did not answer directly when asked if Miers' religion played 'no role at all' in Bush's decision.

"He responded: 'That's part of who she is. That's part of her background. That's what the president was talking about in his remarks in the Oval Office.'

"McClellan added: 'Faith is very important to Harriet Miers. But she recognizes that faith and that her religion and that her personal views don't have a role to play when it comes to making decisions.' "

Julie Mason and Patty Reinert write in the Houston Chronicle: "Bush was defending attempts in recent days by Vice President Dick Cheney, political adviser Karl Rove and other White House insiders to reassure social and religious conservatives about Miers' faith and conservatism."

John Riley writes in Newsday: "After days of White House winks implying that Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers would be a reliable conservative vote because she is a devout Christian evangelical, President George W. Bush himself yesterday suggested that he picked her in part because of her faith."

Jan Crawford Greenburg and Jeff Zeleny write in the Chicago Tribune: "Behind the scenes, top White House figures such as Ed Gillespie and Karl Rove continued to meet with key Republican constituencies, including bloggers, evangelicals and Senate staffers.

"But the efforts, both covert and overt, have not quelled criticism. In some cases, the remarks have backfired."

Here's the text of yesterday's very contentious press briefing, in which reporters valiantly tried to crack the White House code.

Here, by the way is Article VI of the Constitution, which states: "The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."

More About Miers

Amy Goldstein and Peter Baker write in The Washington Post about "internal worries" at the White House last November, about how Miers would perform as counsel, and how those worries "reflect a widespread view that, during five years in three jobs at the president's side, Miers has wielded formidable power with fairness and attention to detail -- but rarely was a strong voice in policy decisions the administration has faced. . . .

"Her demure exterior, however, cloaks a tough will and an uncommonly close relationship with Bush. In the Oval Office and on the road, Miers has spent more time with him than perhaps any aide except Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr."

The Senate Judiciary Committee, consisting of 10 Republicans and eight Democrats, sent Miers a questionnaire yesterday that, among other things, asked her to 'explain how you will resolve any conflicts that may arise by virtue of your service in the Bush Administration, as George W. Bush's personal lawyer, or as the lawyer for George W. Bush's Gubernatorial and Presidential campaigns.'

Here is Harold Meyerson in the American Prospect Online describing White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr.'s recent defense of the Miers pick.

"He testified to Miers' intellectualism by reminding listeners that Miers had majored in math," Meyerson reports. And "he suggested that Miers would be the staunchest proponent of executive power over that of the other two branches that the Court had seen in a very long time. Whom, exactly, this was meant to reassure is unclear."

Columnist John Fund writes in the Wall Street Journal that Miers's nomination resulted from a failed vetting process.

'Conservative Crackup?'

Howard Fineman writes in Newsweek.com: "President George W. Bush may have no military exit strategy for Iraq, but the 'necons' who convinced him to go to war there have developed one of their own -- a political one: Blame the Administration.

"Their neo-Wilsonian theory is correct, they insist, but the execution was botched by a Bush team that has turned out to be incompetent, crony-filled, corrupt, unimaginative and weak over a wide range of issues.

"The flight of the neocons -- just read a recent Weekly Standard to see what I am talking about --- is one of only many indications that the long-predicted 'conservative crackup' is at hand."

Plame Endgame

Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "New York Times reporter Judith Miller testified for a second time in the CIA leak case yesterday, providing new details about a previously undisclosed conversation she had with Vice President Cheney's chief of staff about the diplomat at the center of the 22-month investigation.

"Miller was told by special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald that she is done testifying in the case and free to return to work without a contempt-of-court threat hanging over her head, her lawyers said. Miller refused to comment after spending nearly 75 minutes in front of the grand jury."

Robert S. Bennett, Miller's attorney, "refused to discuss Miller's testimony, but lawyers in the case said Fitzgerald appears increasingly interested in whether White House officials were involved in a broad effort to discredit Wilson as early as May or June of 2003, in part by unmasking his wife, CIA operative Valerie Plame."

Yesterday's Secret Meeting

From New York Daily News reporter Kenneth Bazinet's report to his colleagues yesterday afternoon: "As promised, your pool was left outside of the President Bush's remarks to 'Political Appointees and Senior Executive Service Employees.' So we don't have a clue what was said or done in there. Were secret decoder rings handed out? Did they change the official Team Bush handshake? Was line dancing allowed? We just don't know. What your pooler does know is that in past administrations when your pool was allowed into similar speeches, they were pep talks from presidents grateful for the employees' service. Best to call the bevy of leakers who can shed some light on this top-secret event."

Today's Staged Event

Bush this morning participated in a video teleconference with U.S. troops in Iraq.

In a scene reminiscent of his carefully staged domestic town meetings, part of the session was devoted to questions and answers -- with Bush asking the questions. And the answers all seemed, well, quite scripted.

As Tom Raum writes in his initial report for the Associated Press: "'Do the Iraqis want to fight, and are they capable of fighting?' he asked. He was told they were."

I've got to wonder: Will later reports on this photo op describe how the participants were selected and prepped? How did they know just what to say? What about all those unpleasant facts that tend to belie Bush's optimistic rhetoric?

On CNN, at least, Jamie McIntyre injected this note of cynicism: "Obviously," he said. "this format was not a format for a frank exchange of views."

© 2005 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive