Mark Blumenthal | January 30, 2009
Topics: Barack Obama , Favorable Ratings , Rush Limbaugh
Do you think this week's back-and-forth between the Obama administration and Rush Limbaugh is an accident? Or did the Democrats welcome an opportunity to make the conservative talk radio host the symbol of opposition to Obama's stimulus proposal? A look at what little polling data exists on Limbaugh says that accident or not, Democratic strategists are probably happy to see Limbaugh's profile rise.
Let's go back to the beginning. On Friday, January 16, used his radio program to declare, "I hope Obama fails."
A week later, last Friday, in the midst of a private meeting, Obama urged Republican leaders on Capitol Hill to ignore Limbaugh saying, "you can't just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done."
Then this Monday morning, the topic came up in the of the daily White House press briefing. As Chris Cillizza reported,
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs offered another sly provocation of Limbaugh; asked to expand on Obama's comments about the talk show host, Gibbs demurred and then added: "Tell [Rush] I said hi."
This week, Limbaugh has happily engaged on the topic, both on the air and in a Wall Street Journal op-ed yesterday. Americans United For Change, a Labor backed group, is now running radio advertisements in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Nevada repeating Limbaugh's "I hope he fails," pointing out that "every Republican voted with Limbaugh" and asking whether "our Senator, ____, will side with Limbaugh too."
For much of the week, the Obama-Limbaugh fued has been a prime topic of conversation on the cable news networks, with much speculation that Obama erred in mentioning Limbaugh by name last Friday. Was it?
Oddly, very few polling organizations have asked questions about Limbaugh. I could find just one public pollster -- Democrat Stan Greenberg and his Democracy Corps project -- that tested Rush Limbaugh's favorable rating during 2008. The most recent was on a survey sponsored by the liberal group Campaign for America's Future that fielded immediately after the election (November 4-5).
As the table above shows, Limbaugh's unfavorable rating among all voters (59%) is higher than any other Republican except George W. Bush, although Sarah Palin (47%) and New Gingrich (48%) earn negative marks that fall within the margin of sampling error of Limbaugh. Nonetheless, it should be clear that Limbaugh has a different image than "conservatives" (34% unfavorable), Fox News (35%) or John McCain (37%).
One reason is the way Republicans perceive Limbaugh. In An earlier Democracy Corps survey, fielded in mid-October, showed that nearly a third of Republicans (32%) give Limbaugh a unfavorable (cold) rating, while just 44% rate him favorably.
We may never know whether Obama intended to raise this ruckus when he dropped Limbaugh's name a week ago. However, Robert Gibbs and the others in the White House certainly knew the question was coming on Monday and their reaction is telling. After Chris Cillizza asked his Republican sources whether Limbaugh's higher profile would be good or bad for Republicans, Ben Smith made this very good point:
"[B]ipartisanship" is as much a brand as any conceivable Washington reality. These House Republicans, as is traditional when a caucus shrinks, are more conservative, and in safer seats, than their predecessors. The notion that they'd wind up anything other than extremely rare allies of the Democratic President was always unlikely. Obama doesn't need their votes. But his visible, cable-television-grabbing bipartisan gestures are aimed at cementing his hold on that brand, and ensuring when Republicans and Democrats go their separate ways, Republicans are seen as the partisan ones.
It's not a particularly novel tactic, but it places the House Republicans in an uncomfortable spot. As Chris Cillizza wrote in a very smart piece today, their party is in danger of being defined as pure, intransigent, Rush-Limbaugh-style opposition, and Obama's visit to the Hill may give their image a further shove down that road.
My guess is that some Democratic sponsored focus group conducted this week confirmed that voters in the middle perceive Rush Limbaugh as the antithesis to the Obama "bipartisanship brand," and as such, are not unhappy to see Limbaugh's profile in this
PS: The Democracy Corps "feel thermometer" favorable rating may seem usual, but it is essentially the same question and format used on in-person surveys by the American National Election Studies since the 1950s. The text of the Greenberg/Democracy Corps question is as follows:
Now, I'd like to rate your feelings toward some people and organizations, with one hundred meaning a VERY WARM, FAVORABLE feeling; zero meaning a VERY COLD, UNFAVORABLE feeling; and fifty meaning not particularly warm or cold. You can use any number from zero to one hundred, the higher the number the more favorable your feelings are toward that person or organization. If you have no opinion or never heard of that person or organization, please say so.
They report numbers between 51 and 100 as favorable ("warm") and numbers between 0 and 50 as unfavorable ("cold").