Today's little quote on Vice-President Cheney from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) in the New York Times, "I’m not going to get into a name-calling match with somebody who has a 9 percent approval rating", was the second time in two weeks that a prominent Democratic Senator asserted that public support for the Vice-President is exceptionally low. On April 15, on Fox News Sunday, Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) said "Vice President Cheney has zero credibility. I don't think anybody more than 5 percent or 10 percent of the hardcore solid Republican base believes much that Vice President Cheney says. He has no credibility."
My colleague at Pollster.com, Mark Blumenthal, promptly set the current record straight with this post. Cheney's approval is running between 29% and 34% in the four most recent polls.
Normally I'd write either of these quotes off to hyperbole in a world rarely disciplined by details like data, but the two quotes in short order raises a more interesting question: do Democrats, even political professionals, systematically misperceive Cheney's standing in public opinion? It isn't that Cheney has a particularly positive public standing, but as the figure above shows, he in fact is only a few points lower in approval rating than is President Bush.
In the "paired-data" (meaning only polls that ask about both Bush and Cheney job approval) above, Bush approval is about 34% and Cheney approval is 32%-33%. Over the course of the entire administration, Cheney has consistently been a bit below the President in approval, more-so in the first term and less-so in the second term. This is partly an artifact of more people saying they "don't know" if they approve or disapprove of Cheney.
The 2004 reelection campaign represented a change, with the gap in "don't know" rates narrowing from double to single digits. This reduced the extent to which approval of Cheney was affected by lack of knowledge or opinion crystallization. Still, there remains a persistent gap in those unable to give an opinion on Bush and Cheney's job performance, and this contributes somewhat to the Bush-Cheney approval gap, keeping Cheney's approval below that of Bush.
On the disapproval side, the story is a bit more interesting. Cheney suffered greater disapproval than Bush in the first term, despite the difference in "don't know" rates. The 2004 election and the early 2005 period represents the turning point, with Bush moving modestly ahead in disapproval, a lead he has consistently held since mid-2005.
This disapproval difference is clearly not due to Cheney's greater obscurity-- he was more disapproved of when he was more unknown.
A couple of conclusions are clear. Cheney has consistently had a lower approval rate than Bush, but the margin since 2004 has not been large. A significant portion of this approval difference is attributable to the difference in "don't know" rates. As the latter shrunk, so the approval gap shrunk. Cheney was significantly more unpopular than Bush in the first term but that has reversed. Taken together, there is certainly no evidence that Cheney is significantly less popular than the President.
So why are Democrats so convinced that Cheney is substantially more unpopular than Bush, given the small actual differences? One possibility is the overwhelmingly negative views of Bush among Democrats (his approval rating among Democrats has been below 10% for months) means that Democrats move in a virtually completely homogeneous environment which gives them no chance to encounter other Democrats with a more positive view of Bush (and by extrapolation, Cheney-- I have no data on Cheney approval by party, but it is surely also below 10% among Democrats.) So when Sen. Reid says Cheney has a "9 percent approval rating" he might be reflecting the views of Democrats pretty accurately, even though he is wildly understating approval among the public as a whole.
And I don't discount the possibility that these comments were deliberate rhetorical exaggerations, and that both Sen. Levin and Sen. Reid are perfectly well aware of the data. Despite that caveat, the perception of Cheney in the Democratic blogosphere amply supports the notion that this perception that he is far less popular than Bush is in fact widespread and not just confined to these two Senators.
Cross-posted at Political Arithmetik.