WASHINGTON — It has been weeks since Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast; since gas prices began spiking to record highs; and since Cindy Sheehan, whose son was killed in Iraq, held her antiwar vigil outside President Bush’s Texas ranch. But, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, the fortunes of the Bush administration and the Republican Party have not yet begun to recover.
For the first time in the poll, Bush’s approval rating has sunk below 40 percent, while the percentage believing the country is heading in the right direction has dipped below 30 percent. In addition, a sizable plurality prefers a Democratic-controlled Congress, and just 29 percent think Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers is qualified to serve on the nation’s highest court.
"Any way you slice this data, I think these are just terrible sets of numbers," said Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who conducted this survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff.
The poll shows that Bush’s approval rating stands at 39 percent, a new low for the president. In the last NBC/Wall Street Journal survey, which was released in mid-September, 40 percent approved of Bush’s job performance while 55 percent disapproved. In addition, just 28 percent believe the country is headed in the right direction, another all-time low in Bush’s presidency.
Strikingly, much has happened in the time between those two polls — many of them seemingly positive events for the White House. The president delivered a prime-time speech from New Orleans, in which he promised to rebuild the Gulf Coast. He also made several more visits to the region, to examine the damage caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Furthermore, he saw the Senate confirm John Roberts to the Supreme Court, and he nominated Miers, his White House counsel, to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
‘Huge question mark’ on Miers
The Miers nomination, however, has disappointed some of the president’s conservative supporters, because they say she lacks judicial experience and a clear conservative record on social issues. According to the poll, 29 percent say she’s qualified to serve on the Supreme Court, while 24 percent think she’s unqualified. Forty-six percent say they don’t know enough about her.
"There is nothing to suggest that people have turned on her," Hart said. "But there is just a huge question mark behind her at this stage. She has to establish her own bona fides."
The poll, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points and which was conducted from Oct. 8-10 of 807 adults, also finds that strong majorities don’t believe that the recent charges against GOP leaders Tom DeLay of Texas and Bill Frist of Tennessee are politically motivated. Sixty-five percent say that DeLay’s indictment on charges of illegally using corporate contributions for political campaigns suggests potential illegal activity, while 24 percent say the indictment is politics as usual and has little merit. (Since his indictment, DeLay stepped down from his leadership position but still plays a prominent role in the U.S. House of Representatives.)
Meanwhile, 57 percent say Frist’s sale of stock in a company his family runs — just before the value of the stock declined — indicates potential illegal activity, compared with 28 percent who say the charge has little merit.
48 percent want Democratic-controlled Congress
In addition, with 13 months until the 2006 congressional elections, 48 percent say they prefer a Democratic-controlled Congress, compared with 39 percent who want the Republicans to control Capitol Hill. In fact, that nine-point difference is the largest margin between the parties in the 11 years the NBC/Journal poll has been tracking this question.
But Hart argues that Democrats aren’t necessarily responsible for this margin. "It is not that Democrats have done so well," he said. "It is that people are disgusted." McInturff puts it this way: "People are very turned off and unhappy with the state of play in American politics."
People also seem to be turned off and unhappy with high gas prices. According to the survey, 69 percent believe the worst is still to come with energy and fuel prices. Just 25 percent think the worst is behind us.
Because of this generally sour attitude, the NBC/Journal pollsters doubt that Bush will be able to climb out of his standing anytime soon. "His trampoline [is] made of cement," Hart said.
And while McInturff thinks that Bush’s approval rating actually may actually hover between 40 and 45 percent, he says that’s still problematic terrain from which to govern. "It is a very difficult place to be."
Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.