Bad Signs For Bush
Six months before the November election, President Bush has slipped into a politically fragile position that has put his reelection at risk, with the public clearly disaffected by his handling of the two biggest issues facing the country: Iraq and the economy.
Bush continues to run a close race against Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) in national polls, and his reelection committee has spent prodigiously to put Kerry on the defensive in the opening phase of the campaign, with some success. But other indicators — presidential approval being the most significant — suggest Bush is weaker now than at any point in his presidency.
Bush’s approval rating in the Gallup poll fell to 46 percent this week — the lowest in his presidency by that organization’s measures. Fifty-one percent said they disapprove — the first time in his presidency that a bare majority registered disapproval of the way Bush is doing his job. A Pew Research Center survey released Wednesday pegged Bush’s approval at 44 percent, with 48 percent disapproving.
In contrast, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, who were reelected easily, had approval ratings in the mid-50s at this point in their reelection campaigns and remained at or above those levels into November. But Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, and Jimmy Carter had fallen to about 40 percent in their approval ratings at this point in their races and, after continuing to fall even further, lost their reelection bids.
Given the volatility of events, the amount of time before Election Day and hurdles Kerry must overcome, Bush has plenty of time to recover. His advisers said that they recognize the weakness in the president’s current standing but that he is far more resilient politically than his detractors suggest. They also argue that in this climate, perceptions of Kerry will be just as important as perceptions of the incumbent, and they have poured tens of millions of dollars into television ads attacking Kerry as a politician lacking clear convictions.
Frank Newport of the Gallup Organization pointed out that, in Gallup’s surveys, no president since World War II has won reelection after falling below 50 percent approval at this point in an election year. “Looking at it in context, Bush is following the trajectory of the three incumbents who ended up losing rather than the trajectory of the five incumbents who won,” he said.
But Newport was quick to add that history may be an uncertain guide, given the volatility of events in Iraq. “There is the potential for this to be a disruptive year that doesn’t follow historical patterns,” he said.
This analysis strikes me as solid. All the handwringing on the part of Democrats about Kerry being a sure loser doesn’t comport with the data. It’s not just that Bush’s approval ratings are so low, which one would expect given the negative news of the past several weeks, but that his negatives are so high.
It’s also true that this year is likely not to conform to the norm. Not only is the whole Iraq situation–and the war on terrorism generally–a huge wild card, but the nature of the political climate has changed over the last few years. While races with incumbent presidents have tended to be decided by comfortable margins, I still think 2004 will look a lot like 2000. The “50-50 nation” phenomenon, while overstated and overapplied, is dead on with respect to presidential politics. If everything goes his way, Bush will likely win by a relatively narrow margin (say, 5 percentage points in the popular vote; how that’ll translate into electoral votes is anyone’s guess). If things unravel, he’ll likely lose by a similar margin.