Ted Kennedy: A Life of Political Challenges

Aug 26, 2009 8:40am

It’d be a serious overstatement to describe Ted Kennedy as a universally beloved political figure. In the last test of his basic popularity, a CNN poll early this month, 51 percent of Americans expressed a favorable opinion of him overall. Thirty-five percent saw him unfavorably; the rest had no opinion.

Ideology was one limitation. Sixty-five percent in a 2004 Christian Science Monitor poll called Kennedy a liberal, 46 percent “very” liberal. (The overall number was similar back in 1980.) Contrast that with the number who identify themselves as liberal – 20 percent in our latest ABC/Post poll.

Indeed, in a Time magazine poll in 1980, nearly half, 48 percent, called him “too liberal.”

Chappaquiddick, at least in earlier days, was another challenge. In 40 years of data Kennedy’s initial national popularity rating was his best, 73 percent favorable in a Gallup poll in February 1969. Chappaquiddick came five months later; Kennedy’s popularity fell to 49 percent within a month and never regained such a broadly favorable level. A week after the incident, just 40 percent in a CBS poll were satisfied with Kennedy’s explanation. And two years later, 54 percent in a Gallup poll thought it would hurt his future chances of becoming president.

They may have been right. Most of the polling on Kennedy relates to the 1980 election, in which he was initially competitive in hypothetical general election match-ups against Ronald Reagan and others, but faded later in the contest. Chappaquiddick appeared to remain an impediment; in an ABC News poll in 1979, 10 years after the incident, 36 percent said it made them less likely to vote for him.

While Kennedy’s final popularity rating was far from top-tier for a national political figure, and far below his best in early 1969, it also was well above his worst, 37 percent favorable in an ABC/Post poll after another scandal, the Palm Beach “Au Bar” incident of 1991. That and other damage lasted; in a Pew poll in 1994 half the country still saw him unfavorably.

The earliest polling on Kennedy – a testament to his tenure on the political stage – is a 1966 Harris poll in which he trailed Lyndon Johnson by 13 points as the preferred Democratic nominee for 1968. In the same poll a hypothetical general election match-up had Kennedy and Richard Nixon dead even, 50-50.

Despite the challenges to his overall popularity, Kennedy at the height of his career was favorably associated with health care reform, the issue again roiling politics this summer. Back in 1978 he led then-President Carter in trust to come up with national health program, 44 to 25 percent in a Time poll. And in a November 1979 ABC poll, Kennedy had a 65 percent favorable rating for his ability to handle health care.

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