By John Hyde
The U.S. public has shown a steady decline in support for President Bush over the last few years, and the latest Harris Interactive poll reveals disapproval ratings that rival the lowest of Bush”s presidency.
Utah, on the other hand, is standing by her man.
While Bush”s approval ratings have continued to slip over the last year – now hovering around 38 percent nationally – Utah consistently has given Bush approval ratings of around 60 percent, the highest of any state. Utah”s latest approval and disapproval ratings are a near opposite of the national average.
Why the discrepancy?
Republicans and Democrats have different answers.
Spencer Jenkins, the executive director of the Utah Republican Party, said it”s simply a reflection of Utah”s voter demographic.
“It”s not surprising Bush has support here; Utah gave him the highest margin of victory in the last election,” Jenkins said. “These are the same people that supported him by their vote.”
Jenkins also defends the slack in Bush”s national support as a trend typical of any second-term president. And although Bush”s approval ratings are low, they are not as poor as the congressional numbers.
“You have to take approval polls in context,” Jenkins said.
Still, there is a strong divide in Utah and national attitudes regarding Bush. Even other states that gave Bush their vote are beginning to withdraw support; of the 31 states Bush won in 2004, only five currently give him approval ratings over 50 percent.
The Utah Democratic Party executive director Todd Taylor said Utah is missing what the rest of the country is seeing: “[Bush”s] general incompetence across the board.”
“Utah is an exception to the rest of the country mostly because of partisanship,” Taylor said. “Here, it”s ”my party right or wrong.” If Bill Clinton had done the things Bush is doing, his approval ratings in Utah would be in the basement.”
Democrats like Taylor point to issues like health care, education, war in Iraq, the environment and the national debt as examples of how Bush has failed as president. Utahns, Taylor said, are ignoring the problems.
“Whether it”s a conscious thought or unintentional, they are looking the other way,” he said.
It was the social conservative base in Utah that earned Bush the state in 2004, and those same conservatives still support him.
“Utah is supportive of Bush because there is a high base of conservatives who approve of the job he”s doing,” said Jamie Kaiser, chair of the BYU Republican Club. “You wouldn”t support him if you don”t hold those conservative values.”
Indeed, exit polls in 2004 showed a value-conscious population; more than 1 in 5 voters gave their highest priority to “moral values.” No other issue-including terrorism, the war in Iraq, or the economy-commanded as much attention on Election Day.
Democrats are saying, however, that the “moral” issues conservatives care about have had little to do with Bush”s presidency or his performance in office. The only thing Republicans have gotten back for their concentration on single-issue conservative values has been a too-narrow view of politics, said Richard Davis, adviser for the BYU College Democrats.
“Bush has plenty of problems, but Utahns are willing to look the other way because of issues like gay marriage,” said Davis. “That”s a type of wedge issue social conservatives respond to and they”re willing to forget the other stuff. But when you vote on a single issue, you give the person or party the freedom to do a lot of other bad things.”
But as far as Jamie Kaiser is concerned, it isn”t Bush doing bad things that have led to poor ratings. Bush is not going to receive nationally high approval ratings as long as the war continues, Kaiser said.
“War is a hard concept, and people just aren”t going to support war,” Kaiser said.
Support for the war, however, is easier to find in Utah, and at BYU, than it is nationally. A recent survey of BYU students showed support for Bush”s handling of the war in Iraq near 70 percent.
“During the war you either rally around the flag or you are opposed, it”s that simple,” Kaiser said. “At BYU a lot of our students are raised in homes where patriotism defined by their parents is to support the president and country even in times of war. We support whatever the president says.”
Many Democrats say that”s precisely the problem. Utahns and Mormons, Davis said, are often socialized to support their leaders, especially when they showed initial support.
“It”s tough for [Mormons] to think maybe their leader has done something wrong and withdraw support,” Davis said. “During Watergate, for example, the LDS tended to be very supportive of Nixon up until the end.”
Jenkins said, however, that Bush”s high approval ratings in Utah are not a reflection of partisanship or blind loyalty, but rather a genuine support for the issues Bush has taken. His positions on immigration, energy policy, and the war on terror, for example, are litmus test issues that Utah is supportive of.
“To question the intelligence of voters based on religious affiliation or stereotypes is a dangerous assumption to be making,” Jenkins said. “It”s a stereotype that Democrats try to pin on the LDS population to put them in the category of blindly following leaders. It”s a disservice to LDS members.”