From time to time as I look at current Presidential approval ratings, I find myself wanting to look at the week-by-week job approval ratings of former President Nixon. They are out there and available, of course, but they're surprisingly hard to find.
The best source I've found so far is the Roper Center at the University of Connecticut. They have a page with the data, but their graph quite frankly stinks. The value axis is compressed, there aren't any gridlines, and it just doesn't tell you much. So I compiled their data and made my own graphs, which I'll share with you now.
First, some background and the raw data:
- The Washington Post's Watergate timeline
- Detailed chronologies of Watergate events in 1972, 1973, and 1974.
- Raw data on Nixon approval polls as a tab-delimited text file.
- Raw data compiled into an Excel file with graphs.
And now the charts:
- Stacked charts showing the poll results (click to zoom):
- Approval only for Nixon's entire presidency (click to zoom):
- Approval only for Nixon's second term (click to zoom):
- Net approval rating (approve minus disapprove) for Nixon's entire presidency (click to zoom):
- Net approval rating (approve minus disapprove) for Nixon's entire presidency, annotated (click to zoom):
- Net approval rating (approve minus disapprove) for Nixon's second term (click to zoom):
- Net approval rating (approve minus disapprove) for Nixon's second term, annotated (click to zoom):
I think there are a few very interesting points that are visible in the raw data.
First of all, Nixon started with a substantial number of "no opinion" ratings -- as high as 35%. But the ambivalence quickly disappeared. There was substantial movement from "no opinion" to "disapprove" during the first few months of his Presidency. I haven't done a thorough analysis, but from the few others I've checked it looks like other presidents show the same trend in their approval. This doesn't seem to be specific to Nixon.
Second, Nixon was much more popular than Bush throughout most of his Presidency. President Bush's approval shot up after 9/11, but has steadily eroded ever since. Bush spent most of 2004 hovering under 50% approval and with a net approval of less than zero. Nixon didn't get that low until his former counsel was testifying before the special Senate Watergate panel describing the political espionage that he'd personally taken part in.
Third, to me it looks like Nixon was seen as "above the fray" at the start of Watergate. Everything was somebody else's fault and he didn't know about any of it. His approval rating was at an all-time high as the Watergate burglars were convicted, despite the fact that it was a fairly high profile case and some of them were former Nixon aides. It wasn't until one of the convicted former aides, James McCord, started to make allegations of obstruction of justice and point fingers higher up that things started to take a turn for the worse.
Fourth, July 1973 was an incredibly bad month for Nixon. His net approval rating dropped by a whopping 25%. At the end of June, his former counsel testified that he was involved personally in the Watergate break-in and was involved in the obstruction of justice. Then in July he refused to testify before the Watergate committee, citing executive privilege; the existence of the White House tapes was revealed; and he refused to hand over the tapes. All this contributed to a serious drop in public approval from which he never recovered.
Fifth, even as the worst came out there was still a solid core of about 25% of the country who never abandoned Nixon and continued to approve of him.
All in all, a very interesting set of data indeed.
[Update: December 1st, 2005] Probably because of the plight of our current president, a whole lot of people have been coming here to look at the gory details of Nixon's approval ratings. I should point out that Professor Pollkatz has a pretty nice chart up comparing raw numbers from Bush, Nixon, and Clinton. And he updates his Bush numbers regularly so you can keep track of the progress. Go check it out!
And keep in mind that despite all the recent indictments, President Bush himself has not really had a decisive Watergate moment yet, and probably won't while the Republicans control Congress.