After the recent arrests of terrorism suspects in the United Kingdom, numerous media outlets asked whether President Bush's approval ratings would benefit from the news or even claimed outright that his ratings already had benefited. Subsequent polling has shown the arrests resulted in little or no benefit for Bush. Media Matters now asks: Will these media outlets report on the true effect of the arrest on Bush's ratings?
As Media Matters for America documented on August 15, numerous media outlets responded to the recent arrests of several terrorist suspects in the United Kingdom by asking whether the news would help President Bush and other Republicans in the polls, apparently without considering whether the arrests may hurt Bush, or have no effect whatsoever on his approval ratings. Media Matters also documented that some in the media actually claimed that the arrests had given Bush a boost in the polls, despite little or no support for the claim in the available polling data. Since then, an August 16 Zogby poll found that Bush's approval rating has dropped 2 points since the terror arrests, and an August 17 Pew poll showed that approval of Bush's handling of terrorism had gone up 3 points since June, but his general approval rating went up just 1 point since July. An August 16 McClatchy Newspapers (formerly Knight Ridder Newspapers) article quoted pollsters John Zogby and Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, who argued that the U.K. terror arrests had a negligible impact on public opinion because the Iraq war weighs far more heavily on the public consciousness.
Will the media outlets that raised the question of whether the U.K. terror arrests would benefit Bush now provide the answer? Will those who claimed Bush would benefit admit their prognostications were wrong?
An August 12 Newsweek poll found that while approval of Bush's handling of terrorism and homeland security went up from 44 percent in May to 55 percent, Bush's overall job-approval rating went up only 3 points -- from 35 percent in May to 38 percent, within the poll's margin of error. An August 14 CBS poll found that approval of Bush's handling of terrorism and Bush's overall approval rating remained unchanged from July. An August 15 Gallup poll found that Bush's approval dropped three points from July -- 40 percent to 37 percent, within the margin of error -- and did not ask about his handling of terrorism. The August 16 Zogby poll put Bush's approval rating at 34 percent -- a 2-point drop from the previous poll, and within the margin of error. The August 17 Pew poll put Bush's handling of “terrorist threats” at 50 percent -- up 3 points from June, within the 4-point margin of error. -- while his general approval rating rose 1 point over July's figure to 37 percent.
As Media Matters noted, NBC News, ABC News, Fox News, and others all featured reports questioning whether news of the thwarted terror plot would benefit President Bush. CNN's Ed Henry and Weekly Standard executive editor Fred Barnes went so far as to declare that the arrests had already helped Bush in the polls. On the August 14 edition of CNN's American Morning, anchor Miles O'Brien teased a segment on Bush and the polls saying: “And politics and fear. Through all of the world events, the president gets a bump in the polls.” Nearly every point O'Brien and John Mercurio, senior editor of the National Journal's weblog The Hotline, made in the ensuing discussion regarding the terror arrests and polling proved to be wrong.
From the August 14 edition of CNN's American Morning:
O'BRIEN: Let's look at the numbers very quickly. This is a poll conducted by Newsweek over the weekend, and here are the numbers. The president's -- “How is the president handling his job?” It's the old approval numbers. And this is up -- well, that's the wrong numbers. That's the other one. But what we would like to show you --
MERCURIO: I know the numbers.
O'BRIEN: -- imagine a screen that has a 38 percent approval rating for the president and a 55 percent disapproval. None of those numbers match what I'm talking about. The point is, he's doing better. Fear does work. Why?
MERCURIO: He's doing better not just overall, but he's also doing better on the issue of national security, and that is the most important issue, I think, for -- definitely for Republicans, and for this president heading into these midterm elections. It works because it's visceral. It's because it's what voters care most about, is their personal security and the national security. And Republicans have won two elections, the 2002 midterms and the president's re-election campaign in 2004, a very, very tough challenge both times, on the issue of national security. They've been able to portray the Democratic Party as extremely weak. And that's what I think -- the challenge for Democrats going into the midterms this fall is to sort of try to counter that challenge.
O'BRIEN: Well, here's what's interesting. Let's -- one of those numbers that did come up -- and this is the issue of Iraq -- “Which party would do a better job of handling Iraq?” People are now saying -- 45 percent would say the Democrats handle the -- would do a better job, 39 percent say Republicans would do a better job of handling Iraq.
O'BRIEN: So, you could make a case that world events, having shifted a lot of people's attention away from Iraq, help the White House.
MERCURIO: Well, I think what Democrats need to do, and what they've been trying to do, I think, for the past year or two, is make a distinction in voters' minds between the issue of Iraq and the issue of national security. They've been saying, “Look, we went to war in Iraq under sort of faulty intelligence by the direction of this president. It hasn't been a successful war, but isn't directly related to the overall war on terror,” that the president does still get good ratings for.
MERCURIO: So I think that's sort of the controversy. That's the challenge.
O'BRIEN: So, looking ahead toward midterm elections, elections are always -- there's always variables you can't control in elections. But it seems more now than ever.
MERCURIO: More now than ever what?
O'BRIEN: That the elections are dependent upon external things that campaigns can't control.
MERCURIO: That's exactly right. And I think that's what this poll shows. It shows that even a terror plot that never even occurred, that these -- that the London authorities were able to dismantle before -- before these -- before it actually took place, even an event like that can have a dramatic impact on the political landscape of a country like the United States. And I think that has both parties very concerned going into these midterm elections. There's really no way to predict exactly what will occur in November -- which party will take control of Congress -- because we don't know what's going to happen between now and then. And that's what I think last week's lesson really was.