President Richard Nixon left office with dismal presidential approval ratings. The decades since haven’t really helped rehabilitate his public image.
But Nixon started his presidency with strong approval ratings, with a comfortable majority approving of his performance. That early strength, persisting at least through the end of 1970, means that his average average across his whole presidency wasn’t that bad compared to other post-World War II presidents. It wasn’t great, either, but Jimmy Carter, Harry Truman, and Jerry Ford faired worse.1
But more revealing is the trend. By the end of his presidency, Nixon’s approval rating had tumbled to 24 percent. Significantly, his disapproval rating climbed in direct relation to the fall in his approval rating. When people changed their minds about President Nixon they were skipping ambivalence and going straight to disapproval.
Despite subsequent historical judgment that holds a strongly negative view of Richard Nixon and his presidency, Nixon’s first years in office saw strong public approval ratings. Well over half of those polled through 1969 and 1970 approved of Nixon’s performance as president.
For someone who already had a long public career and was well known in the public eye, he had a remarkably low disapproval rating when he took office. As 1969 progressed, many of the people who had not held an opinion had apparently decided they did not like what they saw, even as his approval rating remained fairly steady.
Through 1970, Nixon’s approval rating remained mostly steady, with a slight decline that was matched by a slight increase in his disapproval rating.
In April 1971, Nixon’s approval rating fell below 50 percent for the first time in his presidency, hovering just under that for the remainder of his presidency. His disapproval rating was also closing the gap with his approval rating.
Nixon closed out 1972 with a landslide victory in the presidential election over George McGovern, but his approval ratings didn’t necessarily reflect that electoral triumph with soaring approval numbers. Through the year, his approval rating climbed slowly but steadily back over 60 percent.
Just as he was being sworn in for a second term in the most expensive inauguration in history to that point,2 Nixon’s approval rating soared to the highest peak of his presidency (67 percent) and then immediately went into free fall. He was being publicly attacked for bombing Hanoi over the Christmas period, even as negotiations in Paris appeared to promise a breakthrough. The Pentagon Papers trial began. And Nixon had largely disappeared from public airwaves, not having a television appearance between an election-eve address on November 6 and his second inauguration address on January 20. Three days later, he announced a Vietnam peace deal.
By now, Watergate was becoming a household word and a common sight on the front pages of the nation’s newspapers. In January, Howard Hunt pleaded guilty, the first of a string of other guilty pleas from others on trials that were widely reported on front pages.
May 1973 was the crossover point when more Americans disapproved of Nixon’s performance as president than approved. His approval ratings never recovered from that point. Through the rest of 1973 and 1974, far more Americans disapproved of Nixon’s performance than approved.
For the rest of his presidency, Nixon maintained a loyal core constituency of about 25 percent of those polled who approved of his performance as president. But most people held a negative view of his presidency, with disapproval ratings in the mid-60s.