I try not to be one of those people who obsesses over every little tremor in the polls searching for significant foreshadowing of things to come. I don't always succeed. At least I manage to avoid inflicting too much poll watching on you. All this is obviously a prelude to making you look at a poll I find interesting.
The newest Gallup poll has results that are very similar to the previous one (three weeks ago), but they've managed to put an interesting historical spin on their analysis.
An analysis of Gallup Poll data reveals extreme and unprecedented levels of polarization in George W. Bush's job approval ratings. Currently, Democrats and Republicans evaluate the president very differently, with Republicans overwhelmingly positive and Democrats decidedly negative. Views among both groups are quite strong, which means they are probably unlikely to change much between now and the election. Never before has Gallup data shown such a high proportion of partisans with such strongly opposing views of a president.
In the most recent Gallup Poll, conducted May 21-23, 47% of Americans approve and 49% disapprove of the job Bush is doing as president. That rating is characterized by a wide gulf in the views of Republicans and Democrats -- 89% of Republicans approve of Bush, but just 12% of Democrats do. That 77 percentage-point gap is the highest of Bush's presidency, and the gap between Republicans and Democrats has been 70 points or higher since mid-February.
The impressiveness of this gap is underscored by looking at historical approval ratings for other presidents who were similarly gearing up for a re-election bid. Aside from Bush, Bill Clinton had the largest partisan gap in approval ratings at a comparable point in his presidency, but his 60-point gap from May 1996 is nearly 25% smaller than Bush's. Ronald Reagan is the only other president to have a partisan gap in excess of 50 percentage points in May of his re-election year.
Bush's 70+-point gap is not only unprecedented for May of a re-election year, but it is unprecedented for any point in a re-election year. No president, dating back to Harry Truman, has had a partisan gap above 70 points in any Gallup Poll in a re-election year.
The numbers are at the Gallup site, but the key point is this: in all of their years of polling, Gallup has never seen an electorate as polarized along party lines as the current one. This is worse than the Vietnam War, Watergate, Carter's last days, Iran-Contra, or the Monica Impeachment. We'd probably have to go back to the election of 1860 to find a situation as bad.
As far as history goes, this means that all analogies are out the window. As far as predicting the election goes, this means that there will be very little poaching across party lines; the independents are in the driver's seat and turnout is more important than ever. If the Bush team has a shed of decency or respect for truth, it should also mean that we have seen the last of the "uniter, not a divider" slogan. But we all know they have neither, so I'm not going out on a limb with that prediction.
Update: Some much needed copy editing.