The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How America viewed the Watergate scandal, as it was unfolding

John Dean III, former aide to President Richard Nixon, is sworn in by Senate Watergate Committee Chairman Sam Ervin (D-N.C.) before his testimony on June 25, 1973. (AP)
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After five men in suits were arrested during a burglary at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate hotel in June 1972, the reelection campaign of President Richard Nixon quietly polled about perceptions of the news.

“If it is proven that high-ranking Republicans were involved in the break-in” or mishandling campaign contributions, the poll asked, “do you think this will make you less likely to vote for President Nixon or won’t it have any effect on your vote?” In what must have been reassuring to the Nixon team — the Committee for the Reelection of the President — two-thirds of respondents said that links between the break-in and high-ranking Republicans wouldn’t affect their vote.

That ended up being the case; Nixon won reelection in a landslide. But this was hardly the definitive assessment of how Americans felt about Nixon and Watergate. That poll from his team was conducted in August 1972, only two months after the break-in was revealed. Over the next two years, investigations would uncover a great deal more about how the break-in was orchestrated and then covered up — and two years after that survey, Nixon would resign from office.

The Nixon campaign poll also asked whether people thought the issue was serious or just more politics as usual. More than half the country said it was the latter. That mirrors early polling from Gallup, which started asking a similar question early the next year.

By June 1973, though, a plurality of respondents said it was a very serious issue. The Senate’s televised hearings on Watergate had begun the month prior, and half the country said that month that the issue was of “great importance.”

In May 1973, after pressure from Senate Democrats forced the issue, Archibald Cox was appointed by the attorney general to investigate the issue as an independent prosecutor. In two polls, about three-quarters of Americans thought that was the right move, with 78 percent agreeing that an outside investigator was needed when asked by Harris Polling and 74 percent saying the same to Gallup.

As the coverup was unfolding, attitudes about its importance were mixed (as the “just politics” poll might suggest). From July to September 1973, the percentage of people saying that Watergate had received too much media attention jumped from 40 percent to 50 percent in Harris polling. The percentage disagreeing with the question stayed about the same; the change largely came from those who’d had no opinion.

When Harris asked whether people felt that the media were “out to get” Nixon, it found that most disagreed — but the percentage saying that the press was after the president jumped from 17 percent to 24 percent over those two months.

In June 1973, Harris asked whether Vice President Spiro Agnew’s 1969 comments about the liberal Eastern media unfairly slanting the news was accurate. A third of respondents said it was.

Opinions of the extent to which Nixon was aware of the break-in (and all of the ancillary wrongdoing) didn’t evolve much in Gallup polling. The most common response, peaking in August 1973, was that Nixon didn’t know about the plan to bug the DNC headquarters but helped cover it up. By the time Nixon resigned, about as many people thought the whole thing was his brainchild as thought that he was innocent.

Nixon’s pollsters kept taking the nation’s temperature. In August, they asked whether people felt that the Senate hearings were hurting the country. A majority responded in the affirmative.

In October, the pollsters surveyed on another question that is resonant in the moment: Was Nixon’s decision to put military forces on alert to counter a Russian move simply an attempt to distract the nation from Watergate? Thirty percent said it was meant as a distraction.

Over the course of 1973 and 1974, a plurality of respondents in Harris polling felt that Nixon shouldn’t resign, although the margin of difference between the two views narrowed quite a bit.

In April 1974, Harris found that Watergate was causing more than a third of those it polled to be less likely to support Republicans in that November’s elections.

That’s similar to what Gallup found a year prior. But after Nixon resigned in August 1974, only about a quarter of respondents still thought Watergate made them less likely to back Republicans that November.

Democrats gained 49 seats in the House and four in the Senate. Nixon’s approval rating by the time he left office was at 24 percent, down from 67 percent at the time of his second inauguration. After July 1973 — when Nixon refused to turn over to the Senate investigation tape-recorded conversations from the Oval Office — his approval rating was never again above 38 percent.

That’s where President Trump is today.