Democratic Hopefuls’ Sniping Souring Their Images With Voters

Posted January 16, 2004 at 2:58pm

Twenty-four hours after the Iowa caucuses grabbed the national spotlight for the Democrats, President Bush takes center stage tonight for the annual ritual of the State of the Union address. As Bush heads to Capitol Hill with the power and prestige of the presidency behind him, the Democrats are licking their wounds and heading to New Hampshire — some on CPR. [IMGCAP(1)]

In contrast, the president will report to the nation as a strong wartime leader, as the economy comes roaring back creating jobs, as his education centerpiece, No Child Left Behind, remains popular with the public, and as a president who kept his promise to pass a prescription drug benefit for seniors. As Ronald Reagan said when he left office, “Not bad. Not bad at all.”

Meanwhile, the Democratic presidential contenders have gone to the mattresses in the biggest family feud since the Hatfields and the McCoys. The Democratic primary has become little more than a nasty snipe-a-thon, leaving none of the candidates looking statesmanlike, much less presidential. The endless bickering and name calling is beginning to take its toll on everyone in the race.

The latest polls show not only that the Democrat presidential candidates are losing ground with voters overall, but also that even Democratic voters have an increasingly unfavorable view of their own field.

A comparison of the two most recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup polls, taken Jan. 2-5 and Nov. 10-12, spells bad news for Democrats in two key measurements. First, with all voters, every one of the six candidates tested (Joe Lieberman, Howard Dean, John Kerry, Wesley Clark, Richard Gephardt and John Edwards) saw little or no movement with their favorables since November, while their unfavorables increased.

Dean led the pack in this dubious category with his unfavorables increasing more than his favorables by 13 points to reach an unenviable 28 percent favorable-39 percent unfavorable rating by all voters. But, every one of the Democratic candidates saw their favorable-unfavorable ratings get worse among the overall electorate (see chart).

For the Democratic leadership this has to be an unsettling trend. Not one single candidate managed to improve his image with the general electorate over the past two months. One rationale for this might be that these candidates are rightly focusing, for the most part, only on Democratic voters rather than the general electorate. However, all the candidates’ images (which include movement in both favorables and unfavorables) got worse among Democrats as well — a devastating outcome.

Contrary to all the Democratic leadership’s happy talk about how the process, with all its foibles, is good for the party, the truth is the negative campaigning is hurting its leading candidates with the party faithful. If this increasingly bitter and bombastic primary campaign isn’t improving the candidates’ image with Democrats, how, one might ask, can they make the inroads they need with independent voters?

Only one candidate saw his favorables increase and his unfavorables decrease — President Bush. His image went from 60 percent favorable-39 unfavorable to 65 percent favorable-35 percent unfavorable despite a barrage of some of the harshest and most personal political attacks in recent memory.

Regardless of what the president proposes tonight, the responses heard on hustings in New Hampshire tomorrow, I suspect, won’t be any more positive than what we’ve heard up to now. And that is not a winning strategy for Democrats.

If Bush gets the usual traditional bounce from tonight’s speech, the numbers for the Democrats will only worsen, and more negative attacks will only add to their negatives. With the voting just getting started, the 2004 Democratic primary season is rapidly becoming party Chairman Terry McAuliffe’s worst nightmare.

David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.