History Shows Presidential Job Approval Ratings Can Plummet Rapidly

by Frank Newport


PRINCETON, NJ -- Despite dire predictions that the Monica Lewinsky crisis could signal the demise of his presidency, Bill Clinton now receives the highest Gallup Poll job approval ratings of his entire administration. The historical record of the public's ratings of recent presidents, however, suggests that it is far too early to say that Clinton has successfully weathered the storm of this most recent controversy. Public approval of the job being done by a President is notoriously volatile, subject to swift change and, for at least two presidents in the last 25 years, has been dramatically affected by scandals.

Scandals Affected Nixon and Reagan
The current situation is most reminiscent of the presidencies of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan -- both of whose standing in the eyes of the public was driven down sharply, and in the case of Nixon, fatally, by scandal.

The impact of Watergate on Richard Nixon was not immediate. The actual break-in at the Watergate complex occurred in June 1972. Nixon nevertheless went on to a sweeping re-election victory over Democrat George McGovern in November, and to a robust presidential approval rating of 62% immediately thereafter. By January of 1973, however, the criminal trial of the first set of Watergate defendants and the formation of a special Senate committee to investigate Republican campaign espionage began to have an impact. Nixon's job approval dropped to 51% in a mid-January Gallup survey.

The announcement of an historic Vietnam peace settlement on January 23rd resulted in a leap in Nixon's approval rating to 67% -- but also demonstrated how short-lived the effects of such international events on public opinion can be.

Nixon's surge in approval evaporated almost as quickly as it appeared. The relentless uncovering of damaging information about the Watergate scandal through the spring and summer of 1973 led to a steady deterioration in public approval of Nixon month by month. By May, Nixon's rating had dropped to 44%, and by August, it was at 31% -- representing a 36% drop in about six months. (A year later, in August 1974 when he resigned from office, Nixon's rating was 24%)

Ronald Reagan was the second president in recent history to see his public image damaged by a scandal, but the impact of the Iran-Contra revelations was both more immediate and ultimately less severe than was Watergate for Nixon. The facts surrounding Iran-Contra became public in November 1986. Reagan's job approval fell from 63% in October 1986 to 47% in December, and ultimately to 43% by March 1987 - representing a 20% point decline in about five months.

Bush's Free-fall Best Known
Real-world events unrelated to scandal also often have a dramatic impact on presidential job approval ratings, underscoring the transient nature of the public's evaluation of the presidents. The most famous drop in job approval ratings in recent presidential history was suffered by George Bush, primarily as a result of public disenchantment with the way things were going economically in the country.

Bush had a long way to fall. His late February, 1991, rating of 89% -- the result of the Allied victory in the Persian Gulf War -- remains the highest ever recorded by Gallup polling dating back to the days of Franklin Roosevelt. Bush, in fact, enjoyed such high public esteem that he was thought to be undefeatable in his bid for re-election in 1992. By the fall of 1991, however, Bush began to fall victim to continuing public perceptions of a weak U.S. economy, and by December he had a rating of only 50%. By the summer of 1992, his job approval sunk as low as 29%, a crash of 60 percentage points in a period of 16 months.

Like Bush, Jimmy Carter was beset not by scandal but by a weak economy, and an international crisis which dominated his last year in office. Carter's job approval rating, limping along as low as 31% in October 1979, benefited from a classic "rally" effect after the American hostages were taken in Iran by supporters of the Ayatollah Khomeini. In January 1980, Carter's job approval rose to 58%. Over the next several months, however, Carter was unsuccessful in negotiating a release of the hostages, and by late June, his approval rating had fallen 27 points, to 31%. The following November, Carter was defeated for re-election by Ronald Reagan.

Potential for Change in Clinton Job Approval Ratings
How optimistic should the White House be, given that Bill Clinton's current job approval rating of 69% is the highest of his administration, roughly as high as any rating received by either Ronald Reagan or Jimmy Carter throughout their entire administrations? The example of Watergate shows how a scandal can ultimately have a devastating effect -- even if its impact is not immediate. Additionally, if military action should occur in Iraq, the Nixon, Carter and Bush years show how this type of international event can provide a short-term boost, but ultimately not a lasting one. At the same time, despite the immediate negative impact of Iran-Contra on Ronald Reagan, it is important to remember that this scandal did not force him from office. In addition, his job approval ratings recovered to 63% by late 1988, and a recent retrospective approval rating on Reagan was 69%. Perhaps all that can be said with certainty as the current White House crisis continues to unfold is that the potential for significant changes in Clinton job approval is as ever-present as the polls which measure it.

President Clinton's current job approval ratings are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,013 adults, 18 years and older, conducted January 30 through February 1, 1998. For results based on samples of this size, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the error attributable to sampling and other random effects could be plus or minus 3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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