Bush Approval Rating Falls Under 40%! (Says Jacques Chirac’s Personal Pollster Working for AP)

Posted by John Rosenthal

This past weekend, the much-trumpeted news went out that President Bush’s job approval ratings had fallen below 40%.  The poll announcing this – for the President’s many enemies, needless to say, welcome – landmark was published by the Associated Press and conducted by the Ipsos polling institute.  As the polling data assembled at RealClearPolitics reveals, when the AP-Ipsos findings were published on Saturday, the AP-Ipsos 39% figure was the low-end outlier among the recent data.  (In the meanwhile, a second poll has also managed to descend below the 40% bar – a point to which I will try to return shortly in an update.)  A less publicized Rasmussen poll conducted over exactly the same period as the AP-Ipsos survey showed the President garnering rather a 46% approval rating.   The latest Rasmussen tracking poll shows this figure having gone up in the meanwhile to 47%.  A CNN/USA Today poll published today likewise shows the President with a 46% approval rating. 

If one takes the spread between the disapproval and approval numbers, moreover, the extent of the deviation of the AP-Ipsos results from the rest of the recent polling data becomes even more glaring.  AP-Ipsos shows a massive 20% gap between the percentage of those disapproving of the President’s job performance and those approving.  Even a poll like the blatantly politicized (“Americans depressed and angry”) Pew Research survey for roughly the same period, which comes up with a similar 40% number on the down side, still only manages a 12% spread.  (A more recent Pew survey for Sept. 8-11 repeats this finding.)

So…: what is Ipsos? 

Well, as so happens Ipsos is a French public opinion institute that until being commissioned in December 2003 to do AP’s polling work had little presence in the US.  One of Ipsos’s most important clients in its home market is none other than the French state and indeed not only the French state, but the President of the Republic in person.  Here’s how a 2001 profile published by the French economics weekly l’Expansion [link in French] described the cozy relationship of Ipsos co-President Jean-Marc Lech to the occupant of the Elysée Palace:

During the 7-year-terms of François Mitterrand, he was one of the advisors to the prince and he held open house at Copenhagen, the famous restaurant on the Champs Elysées not far from the “castle”.  Since he began working for Jacques Chirac, he has left the Champs and stays put in the XV arrondissiment at lunchtime.  Now, he merely delivers his confidential polls personally to the antechamber of the President.
French public opinion institutes, including Ipsos, have a long tradition of seemingly minimizing or exaggerating trends – if not outright contriving them – to suit the interests or whims of their “prince” or, more generally, of the French political elites.  This regularly leads to great “surprises” when votes are actually held: such as the virtual dead heat between the “yes” and “no” vote in the 1992 French referendum on Maastricht – all the public opinion surveys had the “yes” option winning with a comfortable margin – or the 2002 April “shock” that saw Jean-Marie Le Pen taking second place in the first round of the French Presidential elections in front of Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin (the last Ipsos poll before the election had Le Pen trailing Jospin by 14% to 18%). 
Even though the last Ipsos survey before the May 29 French referendum on the EU “constitution” hit the mark on the 55% to 45% official result, Ipsos polling in the run up to the referendum did not provide an exception to the above rule.  
As I have shown on the old Trans-Int, the actual vote was, in any event, fiddled by the authorities, so the real level of rejection of the “Constitution” among the French public was surely greater than what the official score reflected.  But more to the point, on May 2, less than a month before the vote and after opinion surveys had already been showing the “no” vote steadily ahead for several weeks, Ipsos pulled a veritable rabbit out of the hat and announced that the “yes” vote had suddenly recaptured the lead – and by a comfortable 6 point margin no less!  As this startling news evidently did not manage to convince the majority of the French that they did, after all, support the EU “constitution” that they were against, Ipsos, rather than risk embarrassment, quickly went back to reporting a majority for the “no”.   
It should be noted that Ipsos risks no embarrassment in publishing its figures on George Bush, since the latter will not be running in any further elections.  It should also be noted, however, that in the immediate run-up to the November 2004 election, the AP-Ipsos Bush job approval number and, more importantly, the AP-Ipsos “spread” between the approval and disapproval numbers also persistently tracked at the lower end of or, in the case of the “spread”, below the rest of the survey data.  The last AP-Ipsos poll before the election showed the President’s approval rating trailing his disapproval number by 5 percentage points or, in other words, a “spread” of -5%.  Almost all the other survey data gathered at the time showed President Bush enjoying a positive “spread”, and the only other polls which showed a negative spread (-4%) on the order of the AP-Ipsos number were those conducted by – you guessed it – Pew Research and jointly by the NYTimes and CBS: i.e. two news organizations that were not exactly earning a reputation for impartiality at the time.  Thus, whereas those following the rest of the survey data could hardly have been surprised by the Bush victory, those putting faith in the AP-Ipsos data – like those putting faith in Ipsos findings in the run-up to so many French votes – must have been very surprised indeed.
Kudos to the AP for teaming up with a public opinion firm known to be especially tight with the French political establishment and at a time when that establishment – led by the President of the French Republic ipsissimus – has made opposition to “American hyper-power” and, more particularly, to the policies of George W. Bush the leitmotif of French foreign policy. This will no doubt reassure those Americans who were starting to have doubts about the reliability of AP as an impartial source of news and information.

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