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Reagan and the polls after Iran

By Everett Carll Ladd / December 24, 1986

ONE of the most important resources of any American president is his standing with the people. When it is depleted, he finds it exceedingly hard to lead, especially given the opposition he must always confront in our system of separation of powers. How do we know how much of this vital resource of public approval a president has at any given time? For the last quarter century, and increasingly over this span, the answer has been through the public-opinion polls. Hence, any change in what the polls show about a president's popular standing becomes an important datum bearing on his overall capacity to lead.

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It isn't surprising that the drop in President Reagan's approval ratings over the past month, since the Iranian arms controversy broke with such fury, has been much discussed - or that the magnitude of the drop is seen as a significant political issue.

Unfortunately for those who like their answers neat and tidy, the polls of the last month give us fairly complex and even contradictory answers to the question of how much Mr. Reagan's standing has been diminished. One regularly asked question - ``Do you approve or disapprove of the way Ronald Reagan is handling his job as president?'' - yields results that seem a model of clarity: The President's approval ratings have dropped 20 percentage points or so from their October highs, a huge proportion by any standard of comparison. Other questions give significantly different readings, however, and we need to look at the total mix.

The survey just taken (Dec. 9-11) for U.S. News & World Report and the Cable News Network included the standard overall approval question cited above, and it got answers in line with what other respected national polls are showing. Forty-six percent of those interviewed said they approved Reagan's performance - down from the 68 percent and 66 percent approving in the U.S. News/CNN polls of Oct. 15-16 (which followed the Iceland summit) and Oct. 21-23. Even here the story is more complicated than what the drop of 20 points in a month and a half suggests by itself. The current approval rating of 46 percent is 12 points under the level the poll found in August of this year, and only 7 or 8 points below what Gallup was recording in the first six months of 1984 - when the prevailing view had Reagan striding across the American political scene like a colossus. Reagan's current ratings are not out of line with those of his first term.

Other questions suggest that even the October and December drop may not be as great overall as what the standard approval/disapproval question alone indicates. For example, surveys show that the proportion of Americans now saying they like Reagan personally (about 75 percent) is down only slightly (5 points or so) from what it was in the summer and early fall. Similarly, the proportion saying they support ``most of his policies'' has declined but modestly. The new U.S. News/CNN survey asked respondents to rank Reagan in comparison with other Presidents since the New Deal, Roosevelt through Carter: 34 percent called Reagan the very best or better than average; 41 percent as about average; and just 22 percent as worse than average, or the very worst.

The only previous national asking of this question I have found was by Louis Harris & Associates way back in February 1982, when 34 percent ranked Reagan above average, 35 percent as average, and 29 percent as below par. This was too early in Reagan's presidency to permit meaningful comparison. But Connecticut polls conducted by the University of Connecticut's Institute for Social Inquiry in September 1985, July 1986, and December 1986 show only a slight shift on this comparison measure: from the 39 percent rating Reagan above average, and 19 percent below average in the September 1985 Connpoll, to 37 and 19 percent, respectively, in the December 1986 survey.