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 Bushs 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
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
youre with us or youre with the terrorists formulation
silenced both politicians and citizens who had reservations about
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
Bushs 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 Bushs poll numbers
suggests a fragility in his approval ratings that makes 2004 unlikely
to be the cakewalk that some of Bushs 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
Two recent polls show that Bushs general
approval ratings don't translate into an automatic vote in 2004.
For one, Bushs 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, Bushs 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 Bushs 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 Bushs weakness than Gores 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, Bushs 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
Of Gores 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.
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 Bushs 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 Bushs decision with every tool in his arsenal and has called
this a fight for our life. Guinn also refused to comment on
whether Bushs 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
Bushs 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
governors 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.
A loss of statehouses could complicate the 2004
strategy of Bushs chief political adviser, Karl Rove. He's been
trying to expand Bushs base and force the Democrats to defend more
of their political turf.
Rove began with the hope of picking up the
governors 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 Roves
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 governors mansion, it will be all
the more difficult for Bush to put Californias 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
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 Floridas 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.