Nixon, Watergate and Partisan Opinion

Charles Franklin
Aug 12, 2018 · 3 min read

Nixon’s approval collapsed between Feb and Oct 1973. Steady before, steady after. Revelations & evidence presented in those 9 months, not subsequent events, persuaded all who could be persuaded.

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Nixon, Watergate and Partisan Opinion. This topic comes up often enough these days that I think it worthwhile to lay out the facts in some detail in hopes of clarifying how partisans and the public at large reacted and when.

Let’s start with Nixon’s approval by party over his entire term. Nixon was fairly popular through the first term, almost always over 50% approval, though hovering at or just below 50 for most of 1971. (Black line is overall approval)

To modern eyes the most striking fact is approval among Democrats is pretty strong: high 40s in 1969, around 40 in 1970, mid-30s in 1971, rising back to the 40s in 1972. Compare opposition party approval since 2005 has been about 10%

Republican approval held in the low-to-mid 80s until 1971, then dipped sightly to high 70s before rising to near 90% in run-up to 1972 reelection. (As was their practice, Gallup didn’t poll approval during campaign, from 6/23–11/11/72)

The overlap between the overall line (black) and the independent line (purple) is fairly common in approval by partisanship, though currently independents are a bit below Trump’s overall approval.

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Had Nixon left office on Jan 29, 1973 he would have gone out with a very high 67% approval rating in the wake of a landslide reelection and the Paris Peace Accords, finally ending (or so we thought) the Vietnam war.

Nixon did not leave office, and the next 9 months showed one of the sharpest sustained declines in the history of presidential approval. dropping 4.1 points per month from late January to early October 1973, from 67% to 30%.

Approval declined a little more but from January 1974 through August it remained in the 26–28% range until the last two Gallup polls of his presidency, both at 24% approval, the last taken 8/2–5/74.

So that is the overall story. Almost all the decline in Nixon’s approval took place between February and early October 1973, a period of continuous damaging news stories about Watergate and a summer of televised Senate hearings.

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By the time of the Saturday Night Massacre, on October 20, 1973, Nixon’s approval had already reached its “steady state” low point, with almost no change until the bitter end.

The Massacre itself and subsequent revelations, including tape transcripts, and impeachment proceedings did little to reduce his approval ratings. Republican support remained about 54%, independents about 25% and Dems about 15%.

This last point deserves emphasis. The shocking Saturday Night Massacre, Nixon cited as an “unindicted co-conspirator”, the release of tape transcripts that introduced “expletive deleted” to the lexicon barely moved opinion.

Note there is noise but possibly Republican approval declined slightly after the tape transcripts were released, to 50% or a shade higher. Independents and Dems don’t seem to have been affected.

Nixon’s resignation ended our job approval data. After the “smoking gun” transcript was released Aug 5 the 11 Republicans who voted against article 1 said they would now support the obstruction of justice article on the floor.

It is probable that with the collapse of support from elected Republicans, approval of Nixon would have fallen below 50% among Republican partisans.

For reference, in the fall of 2008 during the financial crisis, Republican approval of President Bush ranged from 55 to 63, before rising after the election.

Nixon’s approval collapsed between Feb and Oct 1973. Steady before, steady after. Revelations & evidence presented in those 9 months, not subsequent events, persuaded all who could be persuaded.

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