Bush Rides High in Polls, but Watch Economic Numbers

Posted May 29, 2003 at 10:14am

A month after leading the nation to victory in Iraq, President Bush continues to ride high politically. But both Republicans and Democrats say that his re-election next year is anything but assured. [IMGCAP(1)]

The leaders of the moderate Democratic Leadership Council wrote earlier this month that “if Democrats run the right campaign in 2004, Bush’s high-flying poll numbers since the war will land with a thud on the deck of the U.S.S. Economy.”

Similarly, three liberal Democratic activists from the Democracy Corps, reviewing the latest polling data, found last week that “the president’s position is beginning to slip” and that popular sentiment on domestic issues “is already shifting fairly dramatically” away from Bush.

Top White House political strategist Karl Rove has contended for months that the 2004 election will be “close … more like 2000 than 1984,” and GOP polling adviser Matthew Dowd predicts that, before the election, a Democratic candidate might even pull ahead of Bush.

In a memo penned late last month, Dowd wrote that “as we get closer to the start of the 2004 presidential election campaign, the Democratic base vote will continue to solidify.”

“And, as President Bush is tested in media polls on head-to-head ballot questions, it will not be surprising to see the president behind in some polls against potential Democratic candidates and generic Democratic opposition,” Dowd continued.

“Every incumbent president in the last 25 years has been behind the opposition in the latter part of his term,” he warned. His purpose was to prepare observers for an inevitable tightening of the race and to assure them that “the sky is not falling.”

Right now, in fact, the sky looks sunny for Bush. In practically every poll taken this month, his overall approval rating is in the 60s and he leads an unnamed (“generic”) Democratic opponent by more than 10 points.

In the NBC/Wall Street Journal’s matchup against leading Democrats, Bush beat Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.), 55 percent to 29 percent; Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.), 53 percent to 32 percent, and Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), 55 percent to 27 percent.

A Time-CNN poll published May 25 showed that 56 percent of voters said they were “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to vote for Bush, while 41 percent said they were likely to vote against him.

The liberal Democracy Corps activists, James Carville, Stan Greenberg and Robert Shrum, found hope in the numbers because Bush’s overall approval “dropped sharply in the last month — down from 71 percent to 62 percent” in the NBC poll.

The DLC moderates, Al From and Bruce Reed, wrote that Bush’s “high poll numbers after the Iraq war are lower than his father’s ratings were after the Gulf War a dozen years ago. Bush’s numbers, like his father’s, show chronic weakness on the economy that could endanger his election prospects if it persists.”

Indeed, there is a sharp difference between Bush’s ratings overall and on national security issues and his performance on the economy. And, indeed, it was a weak economy that helped defeat his father in 1992.

In the Time-CNN poll, Bush scored a 72 percent approval rating for fighting terrorism, 69 percent for handling the situation in Iraq and 51 percent on foreign policy in general.

But his rating on the economy was 46 percent positive, 47 percent negative. On unemployment, the numbers were 42 percent/48 percent. And on the federal budget deficit, 40-50.

Bush is determined not to repeat the signal mistake of his father — appearing unconcerned about the domestic economy — and is doing what he thinks will produce jobs and growth: cutting taxes.

There is considerable skepticism in the public whether this will work. A Gallup poll showed that 46 percent of U.S. adults think Bush’s tax cuts are “a bad idea” and 45 percent think they are “a good idea.”

If the cuts do not produce a better economy by the middle of next year, Bush could be in trouble. On the other hand, he has advantages that his father didn’t.

Once the first Persian Gulf War was over in 1991, there were no more foreign policy crises to preoccupy the public. Now, terrorism, the reconstruction of Iraq, Iran and North Korea are key issues — and Bush is trusted by the public vastly more than Democrats to solve foreign policy issues.

Bush could suffer if his policies lead to a disaster in the foreign policy realm, but as both the Democracy Corps and the DLC analysts said, it is imperative that the Democratic nominee be “credible” on national security issues.

Bush also goes into the election with high marks on matters of character. NBC’s pollsters asked respondents to rate Bush on a scale of one (very poor) to five (very good) on various attributes.

Sixty-four percent rated him at “5” or “4” for “having strong leadership qualities.” Fifty-nine percent rated him as “honest and straight-forward.” Fifty-one percent said he was “compassionate enough to understand average people.”

But only 39 percent gave him high marks on “having the right economic policies for the times” and 44 percent said he had “the right policies on domestic issues.”

So, 17 months before Election Day, Bush has to be favored for re-election — unless a weak economy becomes the dominant issue in the minds of voters. Then, he could face his father’s fate.