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Bush's Real Problem....and Kerry's Opportunity

The real problem for Bush at this point is not so much that the Clarke revelations and the questions they raise will automatically pay big dividends for Kerry. It's that these developments are eroding Bush’s support at its presumed bedrock: his handling of the war on terror and related issues.

As I mentioned on Saturday, the latest Newsweek poll has Bush's approval rating on handling terrorism and homeland security down to 57 percent. I also mentioned that, at this point, a plurality of voters (42 percent) say they'll be less likely to vote for Bush because of his handling of postwar Iraq, rather than more likely (34 percent).

Here's some more telling detail from the same poll. A plurality of voters (40 percent) also say they’ll be less likely to vote for Bush because of his decision to invade Iraq, rather than more likely (37 percent). Note that two months ago both of these indicators were net positive for Bush–those saying they were more likely to vote for Bush outnumbered those who saying they were less likely.

Even his greatest strength–the response of his administration to the terrorist threat after 9/11–is attenuating as an influence on voters. It is true that today those saying they’re more likely to vote for Bush because of his actions in this area outnumber those saying less likely by a 22 point margin (50-28). But two months ago that same question returned a 39 point Bush advantage (60-21).

And here’s a very significant result: At this point, just 25 percent believe the US military action against Iraq has done more to decrease “the risk that large numbers of Americans will be killed or wounded in a future terrorist attack”. That compares to 41 percent who say the action against Iraq has done more to increase that threat and another 27 percent who say the Iraq action has made no difference.

The public is also now close to split on whether the Bush administration has done all it could to fight terrorism (46 percent) or has not done all it could (43 percent). Note that political independents now believe by 47 percent to 40 percent that the Bush administration has not done all it could.

The same closely-divided public can be seen in a question on whether the attention the attention the Bush administration has given to Iraq has (42 percent) or has not (47 percent) distracted from efforts to fight terrorism. Again, independents are tilted the other way: by 47 percent to 44 percent, they think Iraq has distracted from efforts to fight terrorism.

The key task for Kerry is to turn this apparent erosion in public support for Bush’s handling of the war on terror, along with Bush's increasingly poor domestic ratings (see Saturday's post), into real momentum in his direction. According to most polls, Kerry now has a slight lead in Kerry-Bush trial heats. That’s a start, but Kerry clearly has a way to go before he recaptures a significant advantage in the race.


What about the new USA Today/CNN Gallup poll just out showing a bounce for Bush?

Yes. Even marginally undermining Bush's core strength on terrorism will have the double benefit of dislodging swing voters and demoralizing his base. The base will never admit they're wrong about this guy, but it'll show up in their intesity.

There isn't a more target-rich environment for hurting Bush than terrorism.


Kerry can hit Bush on his lack of defense for the homeland. Across the land he can stand with fireman, longshoreman, police, and rail workers to illustrate that the front line that matters most has been neglected. The story can be told in every city and hamlet.

Certainly, persuading folks Bush is ineffective against terrorists will change more votes than telling them he is ineffective in promoting affirmative action or union interests (which folks already know). But Kerry's problem is that he is unlike to persuade many swing voters he will be more agressive than Bush in exterminating terrorists (or would have been more effective than Bush had Kerrey been President in 2001). I suppose Kerry could sell himself not as tougher, but smarter at finding the mosst effective course of action. But that will require Kerry to turn from criticising Bush's decisions and begin saying more clearly what *he* would have done different in 2001, and what he proposes to do different in 2005.

John -- No offense; firemen are very important, but they are the "front line" only to put out the fires after anothre terrorist attack (God forbid). And local police come into play only after terrorists are in our country ready to strike (God forbid again) Tripling the size of the NYPD -- or even police forces in Florida -- probably would not have prevented 9-11. Is not the real front line doing away with the safe havens enjoyed by UBL in states too cozy with terrorists?

The latest Gallup Poll showing Bush ahead is disturbing. It proves most of the American Publis is STUPID. If after all the information that has come out showing that there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 people still show more confidence in Bush dealing with the war on terror.

The American people deserve the lousy government they get. It's what they want.

But Alan, *we* live here too. *We* do not deserve this government. Future generations do not deserve the destruction the monsters currently in office will wreak on them.

I don't think Ruy is part of this, but there is far too much of an echo chamber among leftist bloggers. They think that because they are progressive, because Bush and the Republicans are such obvious bastards, the public will be on their - our - side. They fail to remember how ignorant much of America is, and how desperately afraid they are of change, of questioning themselves, or their leader. They think that if Bush isn't their President, America will be taken over by terrorists. They think he's the only thing stopping gays from taking over, from their churches being shut down, et al. They hate and fear everyone and everything, including anyone who is not a Republican.

I wish that we lived in a world without polls. We could choose candidates based on their merit and not on what they think people want to hear. But we don't live in that world, and never will.

All we can do is hope and pray and try as much as possible to get this evil monster out of office. Or at least take back the Senate. If the Repugnants keep all 3 branches, they will destroy America for good.

Aaarrrrgh. Alan, Peter... Looking at, say, theRadio Free Monkey charts of aggregate poll data makes it clear that the long-term trend is not in the direction you guys think it is. An uptick in one instance of one poll is not solid evidence against that. (Indeed, these charts were inspired by those of "Prof. Pollkatz", who was primarily driven to illustrate that point: the newspapers tended to tout the good news for Bush whenever his approval rating in some poll went up a point, even though in general it was all downhill.)

The recent flatness in Bush's job approval numbers may indicate a floor just a hair below 50% approval. But it looked like there might be a floor developing last fall, too, and, strangely, after the rise associated with the capture of Saddam Hussein, the numbers actually dropped below that floor.

My guess is that there's one of two things going on. One possibility is that these crises that give Bush a temporary boost actually have a sort of ratchet effect, focusing attention back on the administration so that they get another opportunity to disappoint in the longer term. The other is that there's a post-Sept. 11 baseline that is still sliding ever-so-slowly downward. In order to see it, you have to collect enough data to average out short-term fluctuations in the numbers. In any event, decrying the stupidity of the American people every time somebody sees an uptick does nobody any good.

I have no idea whether Bush is going to win in November; anyone who calls it at this point is a fool. Kerry needs to get on the ball fast. It looks to me as if his press honeymoon is over and, Clarke revelations aside, he's got to make the case for himself harder than he has. But I see no good evidence of an upwelling of good feelings for Bush, which is pretty remarkable considering that the tidal wave of campaign ads is well under way. A few months ago, people could say "Yeah, it looks like Bush is going down, but the ads haven't started yet; once they start blitzing the airwaves all the sheep will fall in line." But it hasn't really happened.

The other thing to realize is that Ruy is actually right about the longer-term trend: Democrats may well gain some seats in both houses of Congress this year, which will, at the very least, keep Republicans from ruling as a one-party bloc.

If the economists predicting job growth the second half of this year are correct for a change--and, I believe, even if they are not--we are going to need to know how we are going to win this election on the national security issue. Not cut our losses on it but win it. Clarke has pulled back the curtain.

Peter and Alan, every time I allow myself to think bad thoughts about our citizenry I try to remind myself that we have no alternative but to fight the smartest, most tenacious and best fight we can. We have to have some faith that if we do that we will win. We don't have to win every vote, just the plurality of votes in the right combination of states. I think it is highly encouraging for us that the independent voters who will decide this election seem to be the critical thinkers who on many important issues are more favorable to our side than Democrats are!

Calling middle or Average Americas stupid is in itself very stupid. The whole point of looking at public opinion polls is not to "judge" but to understand how opinion is formed, and how it sits in relationship to identity, belief systems -- economic status, age, and a whole host of other things.

Taking the road in assessing public opinion of "judging it" instead of trying to comprehend it is misdirected, and likely to alienate potential Kerry voters.

It's a little troubling (forgetting candidates for a while) to see how nearly foolproof political ads are. The latest USA Today not only shows Bush having regained strength, but an article suggests its due to the precise use of polls in key areas. The Bush forces have a huge war chest; Kerry doesn't...so if this is a sign of what's to come...and the ads overcome even truly bad publicity since they successfully define the opposition...then breaking events and issues will matter less than who has the money for the imagery. And at this point, it isn't Kerry.

The latest Gallup poll shows why it's not good to take every number in every poll too seriously.

Yes, that poll shows a 4% margin of support for Bush over Kerry, despite the recent events which would seem much to damage Bush instead. But should that particular number be taken seriously? I think not, and one reason is that if one looks at another number, Bush's approval rate, it too has taken a rise to 53%, despite the Clarke revelations. Even if the negative ads against Kerry (and Bush is, I gather, only running negative ads at this point) are effective, it is unlikely to turn into higher approval ratings for Bush. Moreover, the rise to 53% is clearly an outlier among the several other polls recently taken, which typically score Bush in the 48-49% range (as they likewise show the head to head quite even).

Now if the sample set in this Gallup poll happened to have included a disproportionate number of voters who favor Bush, say by 4%, then it is quite likely that in the head to head, Bush would also be disproportionately favored, probably by about 4% as well. Such an adjustment would pretty much put this poll in agreement with other recent polls, and would also comport better with our intuitive expectations about how things should be playing out politically under the weight of current events.

In fact, if this explanation is true, then the other numbers, which show a dramatic decline in Bush's support on the war on terror, probably don't fully capture just how bad it's been for Bush, because the sample set, again, includes too many people inclined to favor Bush anyway.

Just one further point.

The political ads are running really only in battleground states, so their effect is going to felt principally there. Yet there is NO evidence that I've seen of a dramatic turnaround in these states in favor of Bush, those there is certainly some tightening. Since the battleground states probably constitute well less than half the population (I'd guess 25%?), if Bush's numbers were to increase by 4% across the nation, it would require an enormous boost in his support in the battleground states to underlie it, if it were indeed the ads that were doing the trick. Yet, again, we see nothing of the kind.

I would like to know the lag between an event like the Clarke revelations and how long that takes to filter through the public consciousness and manifest itself in polling data.

Certainly mass sociological changes take time and have intertia to them - perhaps we are on the trailing edge of the result of the negative attack ads?


Morris Meyer
Democratic Congressional Candidate
Texas 6th District

I was just about to post what frankly0 said about the CNN poll having Bush's approval at 53 percent. Every other recent poll on www.pollingreport.com has him under 50 percent (46-49 percent). We'll have to see if it's is an outlier poll, but CNN has had polls like this before. But I do agree Kerry needs to be more aggressive.

BTW, today's Rasmussen tracking poll has Kerry leading Bush by 2, 47-45. Interestingly, that CNN poll was done March 26-28, when Rasmussen had Bush going from 4 down to Kerry to a tie. Looks like that "bounce" might be over.

The disconnect between the fairly stable numbers Bush has been showing in approval and his clearly declining numbers on virtually every specific issue is something of an anomaly worth explaining.

I guess I'm not too unhappy with this situation, because it's my expectation that the declining support on every specific issue WILL in time turn into lower approval numbers. It may be the passage of time itself that will bring this about, as voters allow themselves to process the consequences of their own changed beliefs. Or it may require a trigger event, the proverbial straw, to turn those changed beliefs into a changed overall opinion of the man. But if there's anything I feel confident about with the Bush administration, it's that we'll have no shortage of straws.

Having looked at a USA today article about their poll, it does seem that, in that most recent poll, there has been a dramatic turnaround in Bush's numbers where his ads have aired.

However, this is, of course, one national poll, and the sample set in the battleground states would be very small (I'd guess about 200-250 voters), and so subject to very large error. My belief that the numbers for Bush have NOT greatly turned around is based on state by state polling, which, of course, would have much larger sample sets in each case than the mere ~250 in the Gallup Poll, and therefore would be far more reliable.

frankly0, I do agree there a number of potential pitfalls out there waiting for Bush, like potential indictments in the Plamegate scandal.

It will take time and the persistant repetition of criticisms to change the way people see Bush. Right now Kerry is smart to stay out of it and let Bush's own people attack him. When the attacks from Clark and others died down kerry will need to do some attacking of his own. Also Move on and similar organizations can keep going ater Bush on his defense failures. I'd love to see an ad featuring Bush's jokes about the missing WMD constrasted with flag draped coffins.
People aren't going to let go of their faith in Bush easily but, if the democrats, move on, and etc.. are persistant the message will get through.

excellent comments on this thread. It's important to not freak out when poll numbers swing in an unfavorable direction.

I'd just like to add that most citizens are not "stupid" (though many are ignorant or disengaged for personal reasons that may not be rational). But most citizens choose to minimally participate in the educational process that is required if one is to be reasonably well informed. A time investment is required, and other priorities are pressing on people.

People don't want to be bothered due to a range of reasons: some are busy, some are cynical, some have cognitive dissonance, etc. So that's qualitiatively different from saying that all people out there just stupidly buy what's fed to them.

It's up to politicians to cut through this and communicate. It's hard, given the media environment's (constant) market and (frequent) ideological biases.

It's going to be a long hard campaign with polls going up one week and down the next. The long term trend line for Bush is down and has been that way for awhile now.

It takes a lot for a President to go from the amazing approval height 's that Bush acheived post 9/11 to a net negative. A lot of people have to admit they were wrong.

Normally, I wouldn't think it possible, but then again we are talking George Bush. The man has an amazing talent to disappoint and to offend.

I think Edward's message of two America's one for them and another for us - speaks to their greatest weakness. Their programs benefit a few at the cost of many.

It's job, it's the economy, it's healthcare, it's corporate coruption, it's failing schools, lack of student loans, it's the opportunity that is disappearing in this country.

We need to get our message back on line. Do that and the polls will take care of themselves.

"It proves most of the American Publis is STUPID"

That's kind of a cynical tack as far as referring to people who don't agree with your views (and I'm just going to assume you meant 'public').

Many conservatives, republicans, et al. could naturally hold you in the same regard concerning your support of Senator Kerry in light of Kerry's unflattering defense voting record, Clarke's complete lack of credibility, and this incessant economy recovery denial from the left.

Your best shot at making new converts would be to lay out a vision more appealing to Americans than what has been executed by the current administration. Quid pro quo, such a vision of inspiration... from John Kerry of all people...

Now that I've mulled it over, your best shot may be to stick with calling them stupid after all.

Hmmm. I am thinking the Edwards approach boils down to a class warfare theme, which does not sell well beyond the Democrats' union/civil rights/anti-authoritarian base -- 35% of voters at best. The only theme that has won for Democrats in the past 30 years has been the DNC/'hey, I'm a Southern Baptist'/tough liberalism that got Carter and Clinton elected. Hate to say a dirty word, but Kerry's themes do not strike this Midwesterner as much different from Dukakis' failed "pragmatic/competent government" theme. And Dukakis was not saddled Kerry's voting record, which Bush is already tarring with the tried and true "tax and spend liberal" brush.