As oil continues to gush in the Gulf of Mexico, 55 percent of Americans think it is a major disaster and 37 percent believe it is a serious problem but not a disaster, according to a new Pew poll. Only four percent believe it is not serious. It is safe to assume as events unfold that the number of people who think it is a disaster will rise. The well is not yet sealed, and the oil slick in the Gulf has only just started hitting land.

Self-identified independents are actually more likely than Republicans and even Democrats to see the spill as a disaster. A full 60 percent of independents think it is a major disaster while only 55 percent of Democrats and 46 percent of Republicans agree.

The unfolding disaster has dramatically reduced support for offshore drilling among Democrats and independents. It dropped by 13 percent since February. Yet, over the same time period, Republican support for drilling has remained strong (76 percent in May, compared with 74 percent in February). Overall, 54 percent of Americans still support more offshore drilling, but that’s significantly less than the 63 percent that approved of it in February. There is now a large and growing divergence between Republicans and other Americans.

Apr Feb May Feb-May
% favoring more 2009 2010 2010 Change
offshore drilling % % %
Total 68 63 54 -9
Republican 88 74 76 2
Democrat 56 54 41 -13
Independent 67 66 53 -13

Pew Research Center May 6-9 Q2d.

The situation in the Gulf is getting worse. As this unfolds, you will see an increase in the number of Democrats and independents who think the event is a major disaster and oppose expanded offshore drilling.

The Republicans, though, may continue their bizarre trend of strengthening their support for it. The divergence between hardcore Republicans and the rest of the electorate might create political problems for Gulf-state Republicans who have supported increased drilling, like David Vitter (R-LA) and Florida’s Marco Rubio.