Public "Satisfaction" and Presidential Fortunes

by David W. Moore, Senior Gallup Poll Editor

A recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll shows a clear majority of Americans, 58%, are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States, while just 40% are satisfied. With only 13 months until the presidential election, these numbers serve as a warning sign for President George W. Bush. Both his father and President Jimmy Carter failed to win re-election at times when public satisfaction had dropped unusually low. The current measure is still considerably above the levels when Carter and Bush the elder lost their re-election bids, but the downward trend -- if not halted -- does not bode well for Bush the younger.

Three Declining Trends During President George W. Bush's Presidency

When Bush took office in January 2001, more than half of Americans -- 56% -- were satisfied with the way things were going in the country. But over the next eight months, satisfaction dropped, reaching 43% just prior to 9/11. Less than a week later, the "rally" effect produced by the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., showed satisfaction surging to 61%, eventually topping out at 70% in December.

Over the next 15 months, satisfaction gradually declined. Just prior to the start of the war against Iraq, 43% of Americans again expressed satisfaction. Another rally followed the start of the war in March, when 60% of Americans said they were satisfied. Satisfaction in the last six months, however, has experienced a decided decline. According to the latest measure, taken in early September, just 40% of Americans are satisfied -- the lowest level in Bush's tenure.

Trends in Satisfaction

The current level of satisfaction is not disastrously low by historical standards. When Carter lost to Ronald Reagan in 1980, only about 1 in 10 Americans expressed satisfaction with the way things were going in the country -- which is not surprising given the double-digit inflation, interest rates, and unemployment at the time. When Bush the elder lost to Bill Clinton in 1992, satisfaction had sunk below the 20% level, as the public reacted to the economic recession.

Furthermore, both Reagan and Clinton won re-election even though less than a majority of Americans were satisfied at the time. The last measure taken before Reagan's 1984 re-election bid showed 48% of Americans satisfied. And in October 1996, shortly before Clinton was re-elected, only 39% of Americans were satisfied -- a point lower than the current satisfaction measure.

A major difference between the satisfaction levels during these two successful re-elections and the current level is the trend. Both Reagan and Clinton were riding upward trends, while Bush is currently experiencing a decline. Over the next several months, the satisfaction trend is likely to be a harbinger of the 2004 election.

Partisan Nature of Satisfaction

Satisfaction is highly correlated with party affiliation. When a Republican president is in office, Republicans will typically express much higher levels of satisfaction with the way things are going in the country than will Democrats. A similar pattern is found when a Democratic president is in office, with Democrats significantly more likely to be satisfied than Republicans.

The clearest illustration of this pattern is found in the graph showing satisfaction measures among self-identified party adherents, from the last months of Clinton's presidency through the first few months of Bush's tenure. Republican satisfaction jumped more than 20 points from the December 2000 reading to the February 2001 reading, while satisfaction among Democrats dropped by 17 points over the same period.

Similar patterns are found during the Carter-Reagan transition in 1980-1981, and the Bush-Clinton transition in 1992-1993. In both cases, party members of the incoming president became significantly more satisfied, while party members of the outgoing president became significantly less satisfied.

At the time of the Clinton-Bush transition of 2000-2001, there was rough parity in the percentage of Americans identifying with each party. Thus, although the transition showed significant changes among Democrats and Republicans, the overall level of satisfaction remained about the same shortly before and after Bush took office.

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