Is this the beginning, the middle, or the end of the 2004 Democratic primary season? Today’s election results from seven caucus and primary states certainly will help answer that question, and point more clearly to the eventual Democratic presidential nominee.
The presumptive favorite at this point is Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, and in my opinion, the probabilities are that we are closer to the end than the beginning of the primary process. It will take a fairly unusual sequence of events to upset Kerry’s momentum and give one of the other Democratic contenders a real shot at taking the prize away from him.
When our CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll asked Democrats nationwide over the weekend to name their first choice for their party’s presidential nomination, Kerry received 49% of the vote. That represents a stunning 40-point increase from our pre-Iowa poll in early January. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean received 14% of the vote, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards 13%, retired Gen. Wesley Clark 9%, and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman 5%.
Looking back at our historical Gallup records of Democratic primary races in the years since World War II, we find there is only one instance in which a candidate received more than 40% of the Democratic vote at some point during the election year and did not go on to win the nomination. (Estes Kefauver received 45% of Democrats' support in June 1952, while Adlai Stevenson eventually became the Democratic nominee.) In other words, based on the historical record, it would be unprecedented if Kerry, with his 49% support, did not go on to become the nominee.
But there are always caveats. The extremely quick way in which the Democratic race this year has changed, propelling Kerry from an also-ran 9% to 49% in less than a month, suggests at least the possibility that things could move just as quickly the other way. The Democratic electorate is obviously fluid in its views of the Democratic candidates.
One scenario that might unfold today and that could result in a reconsideration of Kerry’s front-runner status would be as follows: a) Kerry loses more than two states, b) Kerry coming in with a media-defined disappointing showing (that is, lower-than-expected margins) in the states in which he does win, c) Edwards scores a major win in South Carolina, and d) Clark wins in Oklahoma.
One issue for Kerry is the expectations game, which produces both good and bad outcomes for a front-runner. Kerry is expected to do well in today’s voting, so there will be a real sensitivity on the part of the media to report it as bad news if he seems to falter.
Still, the 49% national showing by Kerry is remarkable, and it seems that the probability of a sequence of events like the one outlined above, which might result in Edwards or another candidate removing Kerry from the front-runner position, is low.
All of the Democratic candidates except Lieberman are doing fairly well, image-wise, among Democrats nationally. Here’s how the favorability ratings of the major candidates shake out: Kerry has an 82% favorability rating, followed by Edwards at 70%, Dean at 62%, Clark at 59%, and Lieberman at 48%.
Everything in the Iowa entrance and New Hampshire exit poll results, as well as in Gallup’s national poll data, suggests that the magic word for Democrats this year is "electability." This concept is not necessarily new; we have found in the past that voters are interested in nominating a candidate who has a good chance of unseating the other party’s presidential candidate. But the electability imperative has became more salient to Democrats over the last month or two as the primary season began -- 57% of registered Democrats now say that beating Bush is more important than selecting a candidate with whom they agree on the issues. In December, the "agree with on the issues" dimension was more likely to be chosen than electability by a 48% to 46% margin.
Turnout in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary was exceptionally high, and every indication we have from our national survey data suggests that interest levels in the election are also significantly above average. Currently, 78% of Democrats are following the news about the Democratic primaries closely, up from 52% in November. Also, 58% of all adults across the country say they have given "quite a lot" of thought to the upcoming election for president, up 10 points over the last three weeks.
In recent years, the highest turnout in a general election was estimated to be 55% in 1992, with the excitement generated by the off-and-on third-party candidacy of Ross Perot. But at the current pace, turnout next November could be at that level or higher, leading to a hypothesis that the Democrats may be more energized than Republicans are.
George W. Bush
The current poll is not a particularly auspicious one for President George W. Bush. His job approval rating is down to 49% -- the lowest rating of his administration by one point, and below the symbolic 50% level that is so important for an incumbent president seeking re-election. Bush’s favorability rating is also at the lowest point of his administration. Just 52% of Americans have a favorable opinion of Bush as a person, well below his previous low-point of 60%, which he reached in August 2001 and again in October 2003.
Some of this negative view toward Bush is to be expected, given the high level of media focus on the Democrats in the midst of their primary season, and that the Democrats have been spending as much time criticizing Bush as they have each other.
Even though entrance and exit poll data in Iowa and New Hampshire suggest that the Iraq situation is not the top priority for voters this year, it is reasonable to assume that new revelations that there may not have been weapons of mass destruction in Iraq before the initiation of the war last March are most likely hurting Bush’s image. His rating for handling the situation in Iraq dropped to 46% from the much higher early January rating of 61% that resulted from the capture of Saddam Hussein. The percentage of Americans who agree that the situation in Iraq was worth going to war over has -- for the first time -- dropped below 50%, to 49%. This latter rating is an important one; if Bush loses popular support for the basic premise of the war, he is going to be wide open to attacks from a candidate like Kerry who has some legitimacy based on his own wartime service in Vietnam.
Then there is the economy, which is a mixed bag of sorts in the eyes of the public. Fifty-two percent of Americans rate economic conditions as either "somewhat" or "very" good at the moment, which is still considerably higher than it was at most points last year. About two-thirds say that economic conditions will be good a year from now. But Bush’s job approval rating for handling the economy has dropped to only 43%, the lowest rating of his administration, and that certainly has to be an ominous sign for the president at a time in which much of the economic news has been positive.
Considering all these factors, it is no surprise that Kerry beat Bush among likely voters, 53% to 46%, when the two were pitted against each other in a hypothetical general election trial heat in Gallup’s weekend poll. (Edwards is essentially tied with Bush among likely voters in a similar trial heat question, while the president has a slight margin over both Clark and Dean.)
Importantly, Kerry is seen by Americans as better positioned to "make sure good jobs are available to all Americans." This is a key finding, given that the poll shows that Americans are more likely to select unemployment as the single most important economic issue facing the country than any of five other issues presented to them.
Still, with all of this news about Bush’s relative weaknesses and Kerry’s strengths, Republicans are likely to argue that what is happening to the Democrats at this time of year is in many ways quite similar to what happens to both parties after their summer conventions in an election year. All of the focus is on that party, and that party’s candidate almost always gets a significant bounce in the polls. With all of the current media attention being focused on Democrats (Kerry was on the cover of Newsweek last week, and is on the cover of TIME this week), there may indeed be some validity to that argument.
Plus, the Republicans have essentially not yet begun to fight, and little of the vast sums of campaign contributions obtained by the Bush re-election campaign have yet been spent. When the time comes, these contributions will be used as the basis for a major campaign effort to focus on Bush’s strengths and the weaknesses of the eventual Democratic nominee.
All in all, I would argue that there are three main indicators to watch as the political process plays itself out in the months ahead: Bush's job approval rating, the "worth going to war" measure on Iraq, and Bush’s job approval rating on the economy. If all three remain below 50% in the late spring and summer, then the Bush re-election probabilities will have to be rated lower than they are now.