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2004 Presidential Election, The Economy, Iraq, Religion and Politics

by Frank Newport, Editor in Chief
The Gallup Poll

2004 Presidential Election

The November 2004 presidential election is about a year away, and it's less than three months until the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary that officially mark the beginning of Election 2004. What do we know about the election at this point?

The most obvious missing element is the Democratic nominee. The CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted this past weekend continues to show a tightly bunched group of Democratic candidates, with no clear front-runner among Democrats who are registered to vote. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is tied for the lead with retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, and slightly ahead of Sen. John Kerry, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, and Rep. Richard Gephardt. But it will probably be February, March, or later before we get a firm fix on whom the nominee will be. Meanwhile, there are several key measures that help give us a feel for how the election is shaping up, even with the Democratic nominee unknown.

First, the president's job approval rating is the single most important indicator we have when an incumbent president is seeking re-election, other than perhaps the trial heat ballot we'll begin to use once the Democratic opponent is known. If a president's job rating falls much below 50% and stays there as the election year progresses, it doesn't bode well for his chances of being re-elected.

Gallup Polls conducted in October indicate that President Bush's job approval rating has recovered from its low point of 50% in late September, and has stabilized slightly above the 50% mark. The latest poll gives Bush a 53% job approval rating. This is not nearly as robust a rating as Bush has enjoyed across most of the two years since Sept. 11, 2001, but it's good enough to secure his re-election -- if it remains in this range between now and next year's election.

Of the nine presidents who have sought re-election since World War II, approval ratings one year before the election have stretched between the 70% range for Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson, to the 30% range for Jimmy Carter. Bush's current rating falls directly in the middle at this point.

In my opinion, the trajectory of the ratings is key. Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan's job approval ratings were generally on the way up a year before their re-election bids, while the senior Bush's rating was on the way down. As noted, George W. Bush's job approval rating fell between April and September, and this is not an auspicious sign for his re-election chances. Thus, the recent reversal of the downward slide makes his current situation a bit more ambiguous. If this kind of fluctuation around the 50% mark continues, Bush's fate will be very hard to predict.

The Economy

As Carter and George H.W. Bush can attest, it's difficult for an incumbent president to win re-election if the public perceives the economy to be in the dumps. Two additional key indicators for the election revolve around this issue.

The first indicator is Americans' responses to the question asking them to name, without prompting, the most important problem facing the country today. If a significant plurality names the economy, it spells trouble for the incumbent president. Unfortunately for Bush, that's exactly the case today. Americans aren't as focused on terrorism or Iraq as one might expect, given the way these issues dominate the headlines. No matter how we look at the latest poll data, the same conclusion arises: The economy continues to bother the average American most. Month after month, between 40% and 50% of Americans tell Gallup that the economy is the most important problem facing the country -- far more than mention terrorism, Iraq, or anything else.

These responses are important because they are open-ended. We don't give respondents a chance to think about their answers and we don't give them a predetermined list to choose from. We just ask them what the most important problem facing the country is, and wait for the answer.

It's apparent that something about the economy is disturbing Americans, and there's little doubt that the public's tendency is to blame the man in charge -- the president. Public concern over economic issues opens up a tremendous opportunity for the Democratic opponents to suggest that they have better solutions for curing what ails the economy, as Clinton did in 1992.

There's another economic indicator that doesn't look good for the president right now -- American evaluations of the current economy. Just 26% of Americans rate the U.S. economy as excellent or good. Before Clinton ousted the first President Bush in November 1992, the same measure was at 11%. In the last poll before Clinton's 1996 election, it was at 47% and clearly on the way up.

As they say "anything is possible," but beyond this cliché it is within the realm of reasonable possibilities that these evaluations of the economy may become more positive between now and the election. Treasury Secretary John Snow claims that the country will add 2 million new jobs before next November -- mending one of the weakest sectors of the current economic picture. And the latest UBS/Gallup Index of Investor Optimism -- released yesterday -- shows an increase of 15 points this month, putting the Index at its highest level since June (and its second-highest level of the year).


The public's perception of the situation in Iraq may be another key to the election this year. Gallup regularly tracks how well the public thinks the war is going in Iraq (this measure has been dropping in poll after poll), but I think the key indicator is the public's assessment of the initial decision to go to war in Iraq in the first place.

We have good historical trend data on a question asking Americans if it was a mistake to send troops to Iraq. In our early October poll, the results showed that 40% said yes, while 59% said no. If the percentage of people saying no moves higher than the percentage saying yes (as eventually happened during the Vietnam War), I think there will be real trouble for the Bush administration.

This past weekend, Gallup asked a slightly different question of the public: "Do you favor or oppose the U.S. war with Iraq?" Fifty-four percent of Americans said they do, while 43% said they don't. (For the most part, these responses were gathered before the news of the bombing of the Al Rashid Hotel in Baghdad -- where Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was staying -- and the 35 or more deaths caused by bombings in other parts of Iraq.) That's a major drop from the 70% who favored the war in March and April, but still represents majority approval. Again, increased negativity on this question would be bad news for the administration.

Religion and Politics

There is more and more discussion about the increasing emphasis in the presidential campaign on activating each party's base -- namely, getting one's hard-core supporters turned out to vote. There are geographic factors that help identify base Republican and Democratic voters (Wyoming is the most Republican state in the union, while the District of Columbia and Maryland are the most Democratic), racial differentiators (blacks overwhelmingly vote for the Democratic candidate), and educational differentiators (those with graduate degrees and those with no college at all are most likely to be Democrats).

But one variable that often distinguishes strong Republicans from strong Democrats is their perspective on religion. On one side is a cultural grouping that includes individuals who are highly religious in their attitudes, practices, and beliefs and who mostly come from evangelical, traditionally white, Protestant denominations. These individuals, who are apt to say they look to a higher source for moral guidance and have particularly intense feelings about moral issues, are most likely to be Republicans.

On the other side is a grouping that includes Americans for whom religion has a less steadfast impact on their attitudes, practices, and beliefs. These individuals are more "humanist" in orientation, less concerned with strict moral standards, and more focused on social and economic issues. They are also more likely to be Democrats.

A number of issues are strongly tied to these religious cleavages, two of which have been in the news recently: partial-birth abortion and gay marriage.

Last week, the Senate passed a bill banning partial-birth abortions and President Bush says he will sign it into law. Several abortion rights groups have vowed to fight the law in courts.

I usually describe Americans' general position on abortion as complex and conflicted. There are relatively few Americans who favor making all abortions illegal in this country, and only slightly more who say that all abortions should be legal. The majority of the public is obviously uneasy about the issue and wants restrictions on abortion procedures, but it wants restrictions that stop short of outlawing abortions altogether.

The proposed ban on partial-birth abortion apparently fits this description; it is favored by a significant majority of Americans (as are such legal restrictions as requiring parental notification before teens can have abortions, banning all abortions in the third trimester, and so forth). As long as Bush doesn't explicitly call for the revocation of Roe v. Wade, it appears that his support for the ban on partial-birth abortion will help him with the conservative wing of his party without alienating more moderate voters.

In similar fashion, many conservatives seem to be coalescing around the issue of gay marriage. Gallup data suggest that the Supreme Court decision overturning a Texas anti-sodomy law this summer was coincident with a drop in support for gay rights. Conservatives have used the court's decision as the basis for predicting that a push for legalized gay marriage may be imminent.

Almost all polling shows that a majority of Americans do not want gay marriages to be sanctified and treated the same as traditional heterosexual marriages are, although there is mixed support for the idea of same-sex civil unions in which partners are given some of the legal benefits of marriage. Bush has essentially adopted a position close to that of mainstream America, saying he is not in favor of gay marriage, but not condemning gay and lesbian relationships more generally. Again, it would appear that he is in a good position to placate the conservative wing of his party without alienating those whose views on the issue are more moderate.


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