WASHINGTON — As President Bush attempts to revive the controversial immigration reform bill he supports, the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds that Republicans are abandoning the president, which has dropped his job-approval rating below 30 percent -- his lowest mark ever in the survey.
But he isn’t the only one whose support is on the decline in the poll. Congress’ approval rating has plummeted eight points, bringing it below even Bush’s. And just one in five believe the country is on the right track, which is the lowest number on this question in nearly 15 years.
Republican pollster Neil Newhouse, who conducted the survey with Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, argues that these numbers have crossed below the political “Mendoza line,” referring to the feeble .200 batting-average mark in baseball. “With the mood of the country dropping below 20, and the president’s approval below 30, both are candidates for a sort of political Mendoza line,” he says.
In the poll, Bush’s approval rating is at just 29 percent. It’s a drop of six points since April, and it represents his lowest mark ever on this question in the NBC/Journal poll.
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Democratic pollster Jay Campbell, who works with Hart, attributes this decline to Republicans. Back in April, 75 percent of Republicans approved of Bush’s job performance, compared with 21 percent who disapproved. Now, only 62 percent of Republican approve, versus 32 percent who disapprove.
This drop comes as Bush tries to resuscitate the comprehensive immigration reform bill in the U.S. Senate, which has angered many Americans -- particularly conservatives -- because they believe its provisions allowing for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants amount to “amnesty.” Bush and other supporters of the legislation dispute that charge.
“This is a highly emotional issue,” Bush said of the legislation while visiting Capitol Hill on Tuesday. “But those of us standing here believe now is the time to move a comprehensive bill that enforces our borders and has good workplace enforcement, that doesn't grant automatic citizenship, that addresses this problem in a comprehensive way.”
Campbell speculates that the debate over the Senate immigration bill -- and the passions it has stirred -- is largely responsible for the decline in GOP support for Bush. “It seems like a pretty good guess that a large portion of the drop is immigration related,” he says.
Also in the poll, only 23 percent approve of the job that Congress is doing, a decline of eight points since April. That number is within striking distance of the 16-percent rating Congress held in October 2006, just before Republicans lost control of both the Senate and House in last year’s midterms.
While Campbell says that the low approval rating reflects “poorly on the Democratic leadership” in Congress, he wouldn’t hit the panic just yet if he were Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “If these numbers were popping up six months, eight months from now, then I’d be concerned.”
Furthermore, the survey -- which was taken of 1,008 adults from June 8-11, and which has a margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points -- shows that just 19 percent believe the country is headed in the right direction. That’s the lowest number on that question in nearly 15 years.
By comparison, a whopping 68 percent think the country is on the wrong track.
Turning to the 2008 presidential election, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton has widened her lead in the contest for the Democratic nomination, while Fred Thompson -- the former Tennessee GOP senator who has established a “testing the waters” presidential committee, but who hasn’t officially announced he’s running -- comes in a surprising second in the Republican field.
In the Democratic race, Clinton has a 14-point lead (39-25 percent) over Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. They’re followed by former North Carolina Sen. Edwards at 15 percent; no other Democratic presidential candidate registers at more than 4 percent in the poll. In April, Clinton had just a five-point lead (36-31 percent) over Obama, and Edwards was at 20 percent.
“It appears that Obama has not been able to follow up his initial surge with a second act,” says Newhouse, the GOP pollster. “Being an ‘exciting and inspirational choice’ to Democrats seems not enough to overcome Hillary's experience and credentials.”
“Hillary’s lead has certainly strengthened,” Campbell adds. “As of right now, people seem to think she is the direction they want to go in.”
In the GOP field, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani leads the pack at 29 percent. Fred Thompson comes in second at 20 percent, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Arizona Sen. John McCain are tied for third at 14 percent each.
“At this early stage of his candidacy, Thompson has become ‘the conservative’ candidate in the GOP primary,” Newhouse explains. “He has picked up support from both Rudy and McCain… GOP voters give credit to McCain for being experienced and having the credentials for the job, but they seem to lack the passion for his candidacy they showed when he ran in the 2000 primaries.”
The top two Democrats, though, seem to have upper hand in potential match-ups against the top two Republicans. According to the poll, Clinton leads Giuliani, 48-43 percent (a reversal since March, when Giuliani led Clinton by five points). And Obama tops Thompson, 50-31 percent.
Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.
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