April 29

April 23, 2004

All the President's Numbers

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Polls are to Washington what box scores are to cities that have a baseball team: they are scrutinized obsessively by partisans. This week the news has been especially startling. After weeks of accusations of Bush administration negligence (or worse) before the 9/11 commission and bloody unrest in Iraq, George W. Bush has ticked past John Kerry in three new national polls.

An ABC News/Washington Post survey released on Tuesday recorded a five-point lead among registered voters for Mr. Bush over Mr. Kerry when Ralph Nader was offered as a choice (48 percent to 43 percent to 6 percent) and a one-point lead when the matchup was narrowed to President Bush and Senator Kerry (49 percent to 48 percent). In a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll released the same day, Mr. Bush led Mr. Kerry 47 percent to 44 percent, with Mr. Nader drawing 5 percent. Without Mr. Nader it was Mr. Bush over Mr. Kerry 50 percent to 46 percent. The next day, a poll from Investor's Business Daily confirmed the trend, showing Mr. Bush at 44 percent, Mr. Kerry at 40 percent and Mr. Nader at 4 percent.

The reaction was predictable. Mr. Bush's chief campaign strategist bragged that the president had defied the "pundits" with his strong position, while Democrats were crestfallen. If Mr. Kerry can't hold onto a lead during one of the worst stretches of the incumbent's presidency, they whispered, how can he defeat Mr. Bush when things get brighter for the president?

But Democrats should pause before they give up and Republicans shouldn't celebrate quite yet. President Bush's vulnerabilities remain, even if they were not as apparent in this week's polls as they were in previous surveys; the question is whether Mr. Kerry can exploit them.

In none of the polls this week that purported to show the Bush surge does the president have majority support. Any politician running for re-election sweats when a poll shows him under 51 percent. Voters who say they are undecided almost always end up opposing the incumbent they know him well, and if they were going to vote for him, they would have already decided. Thus support for Mr. Bush should be seen more as a ceiling, while support for Mr. Kerry, the lesser-known challenger, is more like a floor.

President Bush's overall job approval rating should also be cause for concern. He is trailing behind the last two presidents to be re-elected. Ronald Reagan was at 54 percent at about this point in 1984, while Bill Clinton clocked in at 56 percent in April 1996. Mr. Bush is hanging by his fingertips with a 51 percent and 52 percent rating in two polls released Tuesday. And remarkably, after one of the most concentrated television advertising campaigns in political history, Mr. Bush has seemingly failed to shift a single voter's view of him personally. What pollsters call his "favorability rating" is almost exactly where it was before his ads began.

The other numbers that keep presidents awake at night are the so-called "right direction/wrong track" figures, which ask voters about the general direction of the country and often serve as a leading indicator for a politician's overall health. Here, the news must be worrying to the White House. Even as Mr. Bush's numbers against Mr. Kerry and his job approval rating have risen slightly, the percentage of Americans who believe that "things have gotten pretty seriously off on the wrong track" has climbed to 57 percent from 46 percent last April.

Growing concern about Mr. Bush's Iraq policies is also evident. According to one poll, 54 percent of voters disapprove of the way Mr. Bush is handling the situation in Iraq, and a record 65 percent believe the level of American casualties in Iraq is "unacceptable."

Why, then, did these same polls record a small increase for Mr. Bush over Mr. Kerry? Mr. Bush's $50 million ad campaign probably had a small impact, as did Americans' tendency to rally to his side during a particularly trying period of the war.

Whatever the explanation, these polls are neither as dismaying (to Democrats) nor as encouraging (to Republicans) as they appear. In fact, given the margin of error in this week's surveys it hovers between 3 percent and 3.5 percent the only safe conclusion is that the race is a dead heat. At least until the next round of polls is released.

Ryan Lizza is an associate editor at The New Republic.

April 23, 2004
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Follow the Leader



In this year's presidential campaign, no wisdom is more conventional than the assumption that George W. Bush's re-election effort will succeed or fail along with the American mission in Iraq. If Iraq collapses, the reasoning goes, the Bush presidency will soon follow. And yet here was the president gaining ground, in several polls released this week, in the face of what were certainly the worst three weeks in Iraq since the United States deposed Saddam Hussein a year ago.

The actual shift in the numbers was small only a matter of a few percentage points, just about the margin of error in the polls. And it might be explained by $50 million worth of President Bush's TV ads or Mr. Kerry's relative absence from the nightly news. But the new numbers do suggest a paradoxical question: could escalating national security crises be bolstering the president's support even if they are crises of his own making?

Historical precedents are inconclusive. In terms of public opinion, bad news from overseas isn't the same as bad tidings about the economy. Crises abroad almost always rally the country around the commander in chief, providing at least a short-term bump in the polls. What's more, an environment in which national security is of heightened concern to voters has historically tended to help Republicans.

But the war in Iraq is unique. Rarely if ever have a foreign policy and a president's fate been so clearly linked. Former commanders in chief may have faced reverses in prosecuting the cold war John F. Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs, for example, or Ronald Reagan at Reykjavik. And Vietnam, of course, ended the presidency of Lyndon Johnson.

But these presidents did not choose or create these conflicts. In contrast, America wouldn't be in Iraq today had President Bush not chosen to put us there.

If Americans decide that Iraq is a disaster, why do they not see him as the cause of the problem? Why has support for the president bounced back (up four points in one poll) even as approval of his handling of Iraq has fallen (down three points in the same poll)?

The pattern may not hold, and voters tend to react differently to the outbreak of a crisis than to sustained bad news. Still, there is a theory that might explain these apparently contradictory poll results. In wars abroad, Americans don't want their presidents to fail.

In part that's because a failure for the president is a failure for the nation. Indeed, the logic may apply with more force in cases like Iraq, in which the president has cast the nation on what is essentially a war of choice. To admit that the president blew it is to say the same of the public that followed him into the conflict. And like its leaders, the public not only doesn't like admitting it was wrong, but it will go to great lengths to avoid doing so.

The danger for President Bush is clear: the public's patience is not unlimited, and eventual failure in Iraq will almost certainly sink his candidacy. (Sometimes the conventional wisdom is actually right.)

For John Kerry, the risks are less obvious but no less real: running a campaign that focuses the voters' gaze solely on the president's manifest failures will probably run into resistance, especially with the voters he most needs to win over, those from the ambivalent middle. Mr. Kerry is far more likely to win if he has a plan to show how he and thus the American people can succeed rather than simply showing how President Bush and thus they have failed.

Joshua Micah Marshall is a contributing writer at The Washington Monthly and a columnist for The Hill, a newspaper about Congress.

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