Recent opinion polls on the presidential race must have election watchers feeling confused if not schizophrenic. Some polls have led conservative pundits to declare that John Kerry is all but dead in the water. Other polls suggest that President Bush is in big trouble.
In a piece titled “A Blowout in the Making,” Dick Morris argued that Bush’s attack ads were hitting their mark. “In a few months, we may be wondering why the conventional wisdom ever thought this race would be so close,” he concluded.
It appears that the Bush Campaign is hitting its stride. Its recent ads attacking Kerry on his support for higher gas taxes is a textbook case of turning a candidate’s potential liability (higher gas prices) into a weapon that hurts the opponent. As a result, Kerry’s negatives have risen since early March.
A FoxNews poll shows that Kerry’s favorable-unfavorable rating changed from 47-28% to 43-36% in the wake of the Bush ads. A Gallup poll showed that the percentage of respondents saying Kerry was too liberal had risen from 29% in early February to 41% in late March. Another Gallup poll showed that the ads had the greatest effect in the 17 battleground states. In mid-February, Kerry led Bush 63-35%; by late March, Bush led Kerry 51-45%.
While the Bush Campaign is having success driving up Kerry’s negatives, it must be worried about Bush’s sinking job approval rating. In a recent Pew Research poll, it fell to a new low of 43%. Although the Pew result represents the extreme, it is consistent with other recent polls that show Bush’s ratings falling into the high 40s. This seems to be the result of three things: the recent hostilities in Iraq, the testimony of Richard Clarke, and what was a bad first quarter of 2004 for the Bushies.
THE PEW POLL WAS CONDUCTED from April 1-4, just after four Americans had been murdered in Fallujah and the first U.S. soldiers were killed by Sadr’s thugs. This undoubtedly pushed Bush’s numbers down, much like the Ba’athist resistance did last summer. It also overshadowed the April 2 release of the March employment report which should have given Bush a small boost in the polls.
Richard Clarke’s testimony also did some damage to Bush’s numbers. Although Dick Morris argued that Clarke’s testimony focused the nation’s attention onto terrorism, which is Bush’s strength, the fact is it undermined some of Bush’s strength on that issue. A FoxNews poll showed that the number of people who think Bush is honest and trustworthy had sunk to a low of 52%, while a Gallup poll revealed that 53% thought that the Bush Administration was covering up something about the pre-9/11 intelligence. Finally, a Pew poll showed that in the midst of Clarke’s allegations the percentage of swing voters who thought Bush was stronger than Kerry on terrorism dropped from 72% to 50%.
Finally, Bush’s low approval rating is the culmination of a terrible first quarter of 2004. From the flap over Bush’s National Guard records, to a bad employment report for February, to the Democrats’ incessant attacks during the primaries, to the criticism over the use of 9/11 images in Bush’s ads, to the pressure to let Condoleezza Rice testify in front of the 9/11 Commission, it is hard to imagine a worse three months. The Bushies are partially at fault for some of these. The Administration’s handling of the National Guard issue was clumsy, and the campaign could have done more to blunt the Democrats’ criticism like running the positive Bush ads earlier.
Condoleezza Rice’s superb testimony and a growing job market will probably take care of some of these problems. Yet the Bushies have thus far been ineffective in boosting the President’s positives. The initial positive ad campaign emphasized Bush’s leadership, but left Americans asking “leadership toward what?” Voters need to know what Bush’s agenda is for the future. He could start with a new plan to disarm all independent militias in Iraq before the June 30th handover of power and a plan to keep Iraq stable after the handover. He should also start offering some domestic initiatives like Social Security reform.
The polls show that the Bushies have made a strong case against Kerry. But they still seem to be acting as though they don’t have to make the case for Bush. That needs to change soon, or the polls will continue to show a close race.