When It Comes to Taxes and Environment, It’s All About Intensity

Posted April 27, 2004 at 4:33pm

A half-dozen polls conducted in March and early April found President Bush and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) pretty evenly matched when pollsters asked which one could do a better job handling taxes. But these responses probably reflect a closely divided electorate more than they tell us anything meaningful about how the issue will play on Election Day.

[IMGCAP(1)]Both candidates have weaknesses on taxes. Kerry is seen as too willing to raise them: In a recent Gallup poll, 58 percent of all Americans, including most people making less than $30,000 a year, thought Kerry would raise their taxes. In the March 19-21 Associated Press/Ipsos-Public Affairs poll, 34 percent thought Bush would likely raise their taxes. Fifty-one percent thought Kerry would.

Bush’s weakness on this issue comes from him seeming to be someone whose policies favor the rich. A March Washington Post poll found that 44 percent said Bush cares more about serving upper-income people, 5 percent middle-income people, 2 percent lower-income people and 41 percent all people.

The tax issue, like the environment and abortion, is one where intensity matters. People who actually vote the tax issue — roughly 13 percent to 17 percent of voters in presidential elections since 1984 — vote for Republican candidates by overwhelming margins. In the Los Angeles Times national exit poll in 2000, for example, 17 percent said the issue was one of two that influenced how they cast their votes. They voted for Bush, 71 percent to 21 percent. If the past is a guide, the tax issue will benefit Republicans.

The environment is another issue where intensity matters, and here the advantage is to Democrats. In every poll I’ve ever seen, Democrats lead the GOP as the party better able to handle the environment. Given the Democrats’ strength on the issue, it’s surprising that Bush’s marks on handling it have been pretty even during his presidency. In the March Gallup poll, 41 percent thought the president was doing a good job handling the environment and 46 percent a poor job, down from 44 percent to 43 percent in March 2003. Bush’s ratings on the environment at a couple of points during the presidency have been similar to Bill Clinton’s at the same stage of his presidency.

Bush’s relatively even ratings may derive from the fact that other issues such as the economy, Iraq and terrorism loom larger than the environment. In every poll this year that has asked the question, the environment has ranked close to the bottom as a priority. Although people have concerns about the environment nationally, they are satisfied with the quality of the environment where they live and that, too, may dampen concern.

If the past is a guide, people who actually vote the issue nationally — 4 percent to 10 percent of voters in presidential elections since 1984 — will vote for Democratic candidates by overwhelming margins. In 2000, 9 percent of voters said it was one of their two top issues. They voted 76 percent to 12 percent for Al Gore.

Abortion voters have tilted Republican in presidential voting since 1984. In the Los Angeles Times exit poll in 2000, 14 percent said abortion was one of the top two issues in casting their vote. They voted 58 percent Bush to 41 percent Gore. Despite Washington’s big pro-choice rally this past weekend, polling on abortion thus far this year provides no indication of a groundswell of pro-choice sentiment.

Military Votes. In the latest Battleground poll, conducted by the bipartisan team of Democrat Celinda Lake and her colleagues and Republican Ed Goaes at the Tarrance Group, 20 percent identified themselves as veterans. They supported Bush over Kerry, 61 percent to 36 percent. Another 13 percent said someone in their household was a vet. They favored Bush, too, 57 percent to 40 percent. Goaes described veterans as one of the strongest Bush groups as measured by the hard re-elect question.

In January and February, the Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University interviewed spouses of active-duty Army soldiers serving at the 10 largest bases in the United States. These bases house the bulk of units that have been in the Persian Gulf in the past four years.

The spouses trusted Republicans more than Democrats to handle national defense and the military budget (55 percent to 23 percent), as well as issues relating to military families (55 percent to 22 percent). Sixty-five percent of the spouses approved of the job Bush was doing as president.

Karlyn Bowman is a resident fellow specializing in public opinion and polls at the American Enterprise Institute.