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Bush, the Polls & 2004

By Sam Parry
September 10, 2002

For nearly a year, George W. Bush and his post-Sept. 11 poll numbers have created a self-perpetuating aura of political invulnerability.

With the worldwide war against terrorism expected to continue indefinitely, Republicans appear confident that Bush is positioned to win the 2004 election, quite possibly in a landslide. Some think Bush’s wartime leadership and his staunch support for Israel can help him crack into traditional Democratic strongholds, including liberal centers like New York City and Democratic Jewish communities in key states.

But a close look at the latest numbers suggests that impression may be more ephemeral than real.

Bush's high-approval numbers started as a national cry for unity after the terrorist attacks. That was, in part, because Americans were asked to make so few sacrifices. Bush did not call for a national effort to reduce U.S. dependence on Middle Eastern oil, for instance. Instead, he urged Americans to show patience, go shopping and take vacations. So, Americans largely expressed their “united we stand” sentiment by displaying the flag and rallying behind the president, giving him approval ratings of from 85 to 90 percent.

But those high poll numbers were soon recognized by Bush's political strategists as a device for merging the surge in patriotism into a long-term allegiance to Bush. To question Bush's policies, Attorney General John Ashcroft and other Bush loyalists made clear, was tantamount to aiding and abetting the enemy. The “you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists” formulation silenced both politicians and citizens who had reservations about Bush’s leadership.

Bush supporters also came to see the “war-time-president” theme as a trump card they could play at politically strategic moments. For instance, some Republican strategists expect the looming confrontation with Iraq to boost Bush’s popularity again. They also hope it will push troubling economic news off the front pages and throw the Democrats onto the defensive before the November congressional elections.

Fragility in the Numbers

Still, a close look at Bush’s poll numbers suggests a fragility in his approval ratings that makes 2004 unlikely to be the cakewalk that some of Bush’s supporters expect. After the surge of patriotic support, Bush's approval ratings have slid downward, steadily eroding since the start of the year. An average of the last five national polls puts Bush's positive numbers at about 64 percent with latest polls at or below 60 percent.

Even at these lower levels, the numbers might suggest that Bush has expanded his support since losing the popular vote in 2000 to Al Gore. But the reality is more complicated. Pollsters have had difficulty extracting from Bush's overall approval numbers the "united-we-stand" component, that is, Americans who say they favor Bush so as not to show disunity in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

Two recent polls show that Bush’s general approval ratings don't translate into an automatic vote in 2004.

For one, Bush’s general "re-elect" numbers lag his positive approval ratings. An Ipsos Reid/Cook Political Report poll conducted Aug. 16-18 found that 41 percent say they would vote for Bush if the election were now, while 29 percent say they would vote for someone else and 27 percent say they would consider someone else. Three percent of the respondents were undecided.

The Bush "re-elect" numbers had dropped 15 points, from the 56 percent support six months ago.

As a general rule of thumb in politics, re-elect numbers below 50 percent reflect vulnerability, and below 45 percent offer a real take-over opportunity. For a president leading the country in a global war on terrorism, Bush’s numbers indicate that the electorate is keeping an open mind about his performance and is still uneasy about his leadership abilities.

Bush vs. Gore

Another polling indicator -- hypothetical one-on-one match-ups against potential Democratic opponents -- are cited by Bush supporters as better news. A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll conducted in early August found that if the election were held today with Al Gore the Democratic nominee, Bush would beat Gore by a 13-point margin, 50-37. Bush would defeat other potential Democratic opponents Hillary Clinton, Joe Lieberman and Tom Daschle by between 20 and 26 points.

Yet those numbers, too, could be read another way. Gore has barely registered in the national news since his concession speech in December 2000. When the media have covered him, they have followed the harsh "Gore Rules" of the 2000 campaign, with every Gore utterance spun as negatively as imaginable.

In recent months, TV pundits have criticized Gore both for being too critical of Bush -- and for dropping off the political radar screen and not challenging Bush enough. The pundits also have blamed Gore for engaging in class warfare by challenging Bush’s economic policies, and for abandoning the political base that gave him the popular-vote victory. When Gore grew a beard, the pundits laughed. When he shaved, they laughed again.

For Gore to be within 13 points at this point speaks more to Bush’s weakness than Gore’s strength. Even more worrisome to Republicans is that Gore has narrowed Bush's lead. Last December, the same poll had Bush defeating Gore by a 38-point margin, 61-23. Now, the margin is 50-37.

In the last eight months, therefore, without an organized national political campaign against him, Bush’s overall approval ratings have fallen 20 points and his lead over hypothetical candidate Al Gore has been reduced by nearly two-thirds.

Electoral College Changes

Revisions in the Electoral College numbers following the 2000 Census offer other wild cards for Election 2004.

Republicans note that population growth in the Sun Belt states where Bush performed well in 2000 may help Bush in 2004. And there's evidence to support that argument.

If the 2000 election were rerun with the Electoral College numbers adjusted for the 2000 Census, Bush's winning margin would rise from 271-266 to 278-259, with one Gore elector from Washington, D.C., abstaining as a protest. So, based on the nation's shifting population, Bush would gain seven votes.

But, here again, the political reality may be less positive that Bush's backers would like.

Of the 10 states with the narrowest margin of victory, Gore won five (New Mexico, Wisconsin, Iowa, Oregon, and Minnesota) and Bush put five in his column (Florida, New Hampshire, Missouri, Ohio, and Nevada). Of these Bush states, Nevada has gained one electoral vote and Florida has gained two. Ohio dropped from 21 electoral votes to 20, while Missouri and New Hampshire have stayed the same.

Of Gore’s narrowly won states, Wisconsin has lost one electoral vote, while the other four states remain unchanged. So, three of Bush's "extra" Electoral College votes come from states he narrowly won.

Plus, the biggest battleground state, Florida, fell into Bush's column only because thousands of votes cast for Gore went uncounted for a variety of reasons. Without those irregularities, Gore would have carred Florida and won the president. Gore's Electoral College victory would have been 291 to 246. In a Bush-Gore rematch, Election 2004 could come down again to Florida.

Yucca Dispute

Nevada is another state that narrowly went to Bush in 2000 and could remain in play in 2004. One issue above all others could erode Bush’s support in Nevada – the nuclear waste repository site at Yucca Mountain. According to political analysts, Bill Clinton narrowly won Nevada in both 1992 and 1996 despite its overall Republican trend by vowing to veto efforts to dump nuclear waste at the Yucca site.

In 2000, Bush played political word games with the issue by promising to oppose “temporary storage” at the Yucca site, but leaving the issue of permanent storage open. Bush promised to rely on scientific studies to determine his policy.

Once in office, however, Bush supported the recommendation of his Energy Department to open Yucca despite opposition from every statewide elected official, Democrat or Republican. Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn, a Republican, has pledged to fight Bush’s decision with every tool in his arsenal and has called this a “fight for our life.” Guinn also refused to comment on whether Bush’s Yucca decision constituted a broken campaign promise. [Las Vegas Sun, Feb. 15, 2002] Las Vegas, the fastest growing city in the U.S., is located in Clark County only 90 miles south of Yucca.

Most political analysts see the midterm election in November as a benchmark for gauging Bush's hopes for a second term. If Republicans retake the Senate and hold onto the House, more of Bush’s agenda is likely to be passed, which would theoretically give Bush more legislative victories to point to in his 2004 reelection bid. Likewise, a Democratic sweep would create a divided government and make it more difficult for Bush to pass his legislative agenda.

But equally important to the 2004 election are the governor races across the country. Sitting governors, particularly those recently elected, have statewide political networks that national candidates can utilize to build political support state by state. Most notably, Gov. Jeb Bush's control over the electoral system in Florida in 2000 helped suppressed the black vote, frustrated the recount and declared his brother the winner by 537 votes.

Potential Democratic gains in 2002 governor races, including possibly Florida, could weaken Bush's hand in 2004. In governor races in the East, South and Midwest, Democrats have at least an even chance for pickups in Maine, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Kansas and Tennessee.

In the Southwest, they have a good shot in New Mexico and Arizona. Democrats even have a chance at winning the governor’s mansion in Wyoming. The Charles Cook Political Report rates all of these races as “Toss Up” or better for the Democrats.

Of these potential pickups, all are in 2000 battleground states except for Rhode Island, which trends Democratic, and Kansas and Wyoming, which are solidly Republican.

While the Democrats will have to work to hold on to several of their own governorships, namely in Alabama, Alaska, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Iowa and possibly Maryland, only New Hampshire and Iowa were battleground states in 2000.

Rove's Strategy

A loss of statehouses could complicate the 2004 strategy of Bush’s chief political adviser, Karl Rove. He's been trying to expand Bush’s base and force the Democrats to defend more of their political turf.

Rove began with the hope of picking up the governor’s office in the largest Electoral College state, California. As part of that effort, the White House endorsed the candidacy of socially liberal Republican Richard Riordan, former mayor of Los Angeles, to take on Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. But Rove’s plan was thwarted by the Republican primary victory of conservative Republican Bill Simon, a businessman who has come under press scrutiny for shady business deals.

Recent polls suggest that Davis, while unpopular with many Californians, is the strong favorite over Simon, whose views on social issues alienate moderate voters.

Without the governor’s mansion, it will be all the more difficult for Bush to put California’s 55 electoral votes in play. Political observers also doubt that Bush can parlay his stewardship of the war on terrorism to get close in New York, another Democratic stronghold and the third-largest electoral prize with 31 votes.  Of the biggest three electoral states, Bush appears to have a lock only on Texas with 34 votes.

The fourth-biggest electoral catch is Florida, where Democrats will be strongly motivated after the Election 2000 experience. If a hypothetical Gore candidacy makes the right moves there, by perhaps picking one of Florida’s two Democratic senators, Bob Graham or Bill Nelson, as a running mate, Bush could start the campaign with 113 Electoral Votes lined up against him. That would be 42 percent of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House.

If Bush loses Florida, California and New York – and the Democrats hold onto the states where Gore won decisively in 2000 – Bush would have trouble putting together a combination of other states for a victory. If he held all his states from 2000, minus Florida, he would need to capture 18 electoral votes. His likely targets would be Wisconsin (10 electoral votes), Iowa (7), New Mexico (5), Oregon (7), Michigan (17), and Minnesota (10).

A Gore candidacy, on the other hand, would have its own list of states to target for possible pickups in a 2004 Bush-Gore rematch. These include Nevada (5 electoral votes), West Virginia (5), Tennessee (11), Ohio (20), Missouri (11) and New Hampshire (4). For different reasons, these states were close in 2000 and would likely remain so in 2004.

As the nation enters the midterm elections, there are still two years before most Americans will focus too closely on whom to vote for in the 2004 presidential election. Between now and then, there is no telling what issue or national emergency will develop. War could be the ultimate political wild card, with Bush controlling if and when U.S. armed forces are committed to battle.

But the emerging political reality is that the American people retain grave doubts about Bush's abilities, leadership and policies. If that reality takes hold and the "rally-around-the-president" factor fades, Republicans who were dreaming of Bush winning a second term by a kind of acclamation may be looking at a far less certain future.

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