Mommmm….are we there yet? “There” being the Flipping Point, the point at which the previously loyal rats debark en masse. The graphs below were an attempt to try out a hypothesis about the Flipping Point, using Watergate as an exemplar.
I had recalled about Watergate that there was a time when the drip, drip, drip became a torrent, and people sang, resigned, were fired or otherwise bailed (or were thrown overboard) in bunches, and at the same time Nixon’s approval ratings sank to the bottom. My hypothesis was that the dropping approvals might have set this off, because the big guy as he sinks can’t give cover to the rats any longer – his political capital, to mix a metaphor, is all spent. Is there a point where it becomes a better self-preservation strategy to sing than to remain silent? If so, are we there yet?
The top graph shows Nixon’s weekly approval ratings for his second term (numbers from Gallup-Roper, found via Recording Artist here). The marked points correspond to these timeline events from Charlie Citrine’s Watergate Timeline here:
A. January 30, 1973: James W. McCord and G. Gordon Liddy were convicted of breaking into and illegally wiretapping Democratic Party headquarters in the previous year.
B. February 1973: The Senate votes (77-0) to establish a Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities. The Committee is to be chaired by Senator Sam Ervin (D-NC).
C. March 23-29, 1973: James McCord implicates John Dean, Jeb Magruder, John Mitchell, G. Gordon Liddy, and Charles Colson in the Watergate burglary.
D. April 1 ?, 1973: John Dean is at Camp David ostensibly at work on “the Dean Report”. Instead, Dean tape records three phone conversations and plans to testify.
E. April 15, 1973: John Dean reveals the roles played by Liddy and Hunt in the Dr. Fielding break-in.
F. April 27, 1973: FBI Director, Patrick Grey, resigns after it is revealed that he destroyed evidence given to him by then White House Counsel John Dean.
G. April 30, 1973: Resignations of H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, Attorney General Richard Kleindienst, and the firing of White House counsel John Dean are announced.
H. June 25, 1973: John Dean testifies before Ervin’s committee.
The lower graph shows Chimpy’s biweekly approval ratings on the same scale for his second term, obtained from Pollkatz ,here. Pollkatz produces a combined approval index using a variety of available polls, so the methodology is not the same as for the Nixon polls. We are, however, looking for large trends, not exact ratings, so this comparison should be good enough. On both graphs 50% approval is shown with a yellow line. The red triangle on Nixon’s graph shows the comparable point in his second term to where Chimpy is now.
Now, obviously, this is a different time, and the presidents, despite their remarkably similar criminal propensities, have mostly different administrations, so this comparison is no more than a thought experiment. We need to note that Nixon’s approval was much higher at the start of his second term – this truly was a popular president. On the other hand, he had a handicap Chimpy doesn’t have – a Democratic Congress. Indeed, look at how quickly Sam Ervin’s committee was formed after the convictions of McCord and Liddy. The series of events I am focusing on, which include most particularly the flipping of both McCord and Dean, happened very quickly after that, concurrently with one of the most breathtaking plunges in presidential approval ratings ever seen. The public had been prepared for many of these revelations over the previous year, starting with news accounts of ties between the Watergate burglars and the White House as early as June of 1972, but nevertheless Nixon had won the 1972 election in a landslide, and his approvals stayed quite high. The drip, drip, drip by the Post reporters had peeled back layers at regular intervals, but somehow Nixon had remained untouchable.
So what changed in February, 1973? Suddenly the polls dropped through the floor, and the rats sang, jumped or were pushed from HMS Nixon. It can’t have been the effect of the Senate committee, which was so recently formed. Both the drop in approval and the flipping of the participants happened more or less concurrently, so it’s hard to say that one pushed the other. If there was a relationship it was probably synergistic. Perhaps it was the cumulative effect of dripping scandal.
My guess? It was the conviction of McCord and Liddy. That clearly gave McCord a motivation to flip, but also was an object lesson for the others, Dean foremost among them. To the extent that the Nixon crew lived in a bubble in which they thought they were protected by the boss’ political power, the fact that people were really truly going to have to fall hard on their swords for him may have been a wake up call. To the extent that the American public had put Nixon’s little dust up out of their minds, when they saw that there was enough demonstrable badness to convict a couple of his henchmen, it may have been a signal to start taking it seriously.
Chimpy has not seen any drop in approval comparable to Nixon’s, but he doesn’t have so far to fall. His untouchability is evaporating already , but we haven’t yet seen flipping among the suspects, unless Cooper’s decision to testify counts. It’s just a guess – and maybe Watergate is a poor analogy — but I think we’re not quite there yet. I think we need a conviction. Go Fitzgerald!