Pink Is the New Red

By Richard Morin
Monday, April 17, 2006

It seems that only yesterday American politics appeared to have found its true colors: Republican Red and Democratic Blue, the visual shorthand for an electorate that most thought had become immutably divided by geography and partisanship into red states and blue.

But political fashions quickly changed, and so have the colors of this year's political map.

States that were once reliably red are turning pink. Some are no longer red but a sort of powder blue. In fact, a solid majority of residents in states that President Bush carried in 2004 now disapprove of the job he is doing as president. Views of the GOP have also soured in those Republican red states.

According to the latest Post-ABC News poll, Bush's overall job approval rating now averages 43 percent in the states where he beat Democratic nominee John Kerry two years ago, while 57 percent disapprove of his performance.

Bush is even marginally unpopular, at least on average, in states where he beat Kerry with relative ease. The poll data suggest that in states where the president's victory margin was greater than five percentage points, his average job approval currently stands at 47 percent. Red? Hardly. A watery pink at best.

And in states where the president's victory margin was five percentage points or less, a clear majority of residents now disapprove of his performance. Color them light blue.

More ominously for Republicans, their party also has lost standing with the public. Residents of states Bush won in 2004 say they trust the Democrats (48 percent) more than the Republicans (42 percent) to deal with the country's biggest problems.

Those humbling numbers for Republicans are a far cry from the results of surveys taken immediately before the 2004 election. Back then, red states were bright red: Bush's overall job approval rating stood 13 points higher, at 56 percent in states that he eventually won. And throughout Bush's first term it was the GOP and not the Democrats whom voters in these states trusted to deal with the country's biggest problems, sometimes by double-digit margins.

Blue states are still blue -- but it is a deeper, bolder and angrier blue, the latest Post-ABC poll suggests. Across states where Kerry defeated Bush two years ago, barely a third -- 33 percent -- currently approve of the president's overall performance, while 65 percent disapprove. That's a 12-point drop in this group of states from a Post-ABC survey conducted before the presidential vote.

Taken together, these findings underscore the fact that Bush's fall from public grace isn't just occurring in states that were colored blue after the last presidential election. And they once again prove that change is inevitable in politics and that last year's received wisdom has a way of becoming this year's political myth.

To see if the political palette has changed, I divided the 1,027 survey respondents in our latest poll into four groups on the basis of how their states voted in the 2004 presidential election. Those who lived in states where Bush won by more than five percentage points were aggregated together. So were those in states where Bush beat Kerry by a smaller margin. Residents of states that went for Kerry were split into two groups using the same five-percentage-point rule to differentiate big Kerry wins from more modest victories.

Of course some states are still dependably Republican. But even these are not quite as red as they were a few years ago. For example, Utah residents showered Bush with 72 percent of their votes in 2004, his biggest win that year. But the latest statewide poll by the Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV suggests that 61 percent approve of the job Bush is doing as president, a double-digit drop in approval since June. "Bush is dragging down every Republican officeholder in the nation, even here," pollster Dan Jones, a political science professor at the University of Utah, told the Morning News.

Other recent state polls confirm the broad findings of the aggregate analysis. In Iowa, Bush beat Kerry by a single percentage point -- 50 percent to 49 percent -- and before the election, residents were equally divided over his overall job performance. Not so now: Bush's approval rating had sunk to 37 percent in a Des Moines Register poll conducted in January, his worst showing ever.

Closer to home, Bush easily carried Virginia, by eight percentage points, two years ago. But a Post survey two weeks before last November's gubernatorial election found that Bush's job approval rating among likely voters in the commonwealth had fallen to 44 percent, while 55 percent disapproved of his performance.

That's one big reason Republican gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore behaved so oddly toward Bush late in his campaign last year, first deciding to be conspicuously absent when the president came calling in Norfolk only to invite him to a big election-eve rally a week later. The president may expect similar ambivalence from GOP office-seekers in tight races as this year's campaign unfolds.

The writer is The Post's director of polling.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company