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Al Gore and the 2004 Presidential Race, Bush's Economic Team, Trent Lott, The Catholic Church and Cardinal Law, The Bible, Iraq

Al Gore and the 2004 Presidential Race, Bush's Economic Team, Trent Lott, The Catholic Church and Cardinal Law, The Bible, Iraq

Politics is back in the news this week on two fronts. Former Vice President Al Gore dropped the bombshell announcement Sunday that he will not seek the Democratic nomination for president in 2004. And Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., in line to become Senate majority leader when the Republicans officially regain control of the Senate in January, is being pressured by some colleagues to relinquish the leadership post as a result of the now highly publicized comments he made at the 100th birthday party of retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C.

Al Gore and the 2004 Presidential Race

Gore had actually been slipping in the public's esteem in recent months. He left office in January 2001 with a decent 56% favorable, 40% unfavorable rating. But by September 2002, his favorable ratings had dropped to 46% and his unfavorable ratings were up to 47%. He was still the front-runner for the 2004 nomination among Democrats, largely a function of his high name recognition. But several recent polls showed a lukewarm reaction from Democrats when they were asked directly if he should run in 2004. The most recent poll, released by the Wall Street Journal and NBC last week, found that only 48% of Democrats said they would prefer to have Gore run for the Democratic nomination in 2004, while almost as many, 42%, said they preferred to have him step aside for another candidate.

And who might that candidate be? Democratic leaders, pundits, political observers, and journalists are scrambling to figure out the dimensions of the newly configured playing field, just a little more than a year before the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary in January 2004.

In many ways, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman should be the front-runner. He was Gore's running mate in 2000, has high name recognition, and in recent weeks has all but said he would enter the presidential fray if Gore did not run. But Lieberman is essentially tied with other Democrats in most trial heat polls this fall -- only marginally ahead of competitors Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, Missouri Congressman Dick Gephardt, and South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle.

Of course, at this point horse-race polls do not necessarily predict the lay of the land by the time voters cast their first ballots in early 2004. Other candidates will enter the field, and some of the candidates that we are testing now may -- like Gore --also drop out. The way the 2004 race will actually play itself out will also be shaped in part by geography and timing. Gephardt, for example, would probably do well in the Iowa caucuses (in a state next door to his native Missouri), and that could give his campaign early momentum. Similarly, Kerry can be expected to do well in New Hampshire, next to his home state of Massachusetts.

One thing is certain -- every poll shows that at this point, President Bush would beat any unnamed Democratic candidate in the initial general election trial heats. In November, for example, Gallup polling showed that Bush received 55% of the vote compared to 39% for "the Democratic Party's candidate for president." It's possible that this too may change significantly between now and November 2004. There is little doubt that the current president remembers how quickly his father plummeted in pre-election polling in the months between early 1991, on the heels of the U.S. victory in the Persian Gulf War, and 1992, when Bill Clinton won the election.

Bush's Economic Team

There is a strong possibility that Bush made the recent changes to his economic team in anticipation of the forthcoming presidential election. To a significant degree, the elder Bush's defeat in 1992 was tied to the public's perception that he was not doing enough about the faltering economy. The younger Bush and his advisers certainly are striving to avoid the same fate.

How much of a difference will Bush's economic changes make? Most Americans were not intimately acquainted with either departing Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill or chief economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey, and are not aware of what they may or may not have been doing to help the economy. But even if Americans don't know Paul O'Neill, the treasury secretary, from Paul O'Neill of the New York Yankees, Bush no doubt made his changes in such a visible way because he expected them to result in some uptick in the public's confidence in his handling of the economy.

That hasn't happened -- at least not yet. The news coverage of the changes to the economic team came on Dec. 6. On Dec. 9 and Dec. 10, Gallup fielded a new survey rating the president. The results? Bush's economic job approval rating went down, not up -- from 55% in mid-November to 49%. That ties for the lowest economic rating of his administration.

Furthermore, Bush's overall job approval rating slipped to 63% after the announcements. That's not a bad rating, but it's certainly not showing any gains compared to the 68%, 66%, 65%, and 64% ratings Bush got in the four surveys previous to the shake-up.

In our Dec. 9-10 survey, Gallup asked the public very directly if the fact that Bush had replaced two of his top economic advisers made them more confident or less confident in his administration's ability to deal with the economy, or if it didn't make any difference.

The "no difference" response won, with half of the public's vote. About 3 in 10 Americans chose the "more confident" alternative, but these respondents were for the most part Republicans who -- I think it is fair to say -- probably would react positively to almost any move the president might make. Sixteen percent (mostly Democrats) said the changes made them less confident in the president's handling of the economy. All in all, these results do not reflect evidence that the personnel shifts are having a resounding impact.

Trent Lott

Lott probably hoped that his widely publicized press conference from Pascagoula, Miss., last week would take the heat off the intense pressure he has been under since making his ill-considered remarks at Thurmond's birthday party. It didn't. Over the weekend, Republican Sen. Don Nickles called for the Senate to take a revote on Lott's election as their majority leader, and by Monday Nickles was joined by at least two other senators saying the same thing.

Lott's comments were made in the context of a partisan situation that is strongly divided by race. Only 30% of blacks have a favorable opinion of the Republican Party, while 59% hold an unfavorable opinion. Among whites, it's the mirror image: 57% are favorable toward the Republicans, while only 34% are unfavorable. These realities may be one reason why Lott went on Black Entertainment Television network last night to address his views on race.

Still, it's interesting to note that 68% of black Americans said this summer that they characterize race relations between white and blacks in the United States today as either "very" or "somewhat" good, and 31% say they are "somewhat" or "very" bad. Seventy percent of whites say that relations between whites and blacks are good.

Lott is from the South, and there's no question that the Republican Party is now the dominant party in that region. Republicans received 59% of Southerners' votes for Congress this year, according to our estimates.

The Catholic Church and Cardinal Law

The Roman Catholic Church is not a democracy, but if it were, the resignation of Boston Cardinal Bernard Law would have been a predictable occurrence. Seven in 10 American Catholics interviewed in our early December poll said that they thought Cardinal Law should resign. In fact, about the same percentage of Catholics wanted him to resign back in late April/early May.

One key question for the Catholic Church is how much damage the sex abuse scandal has done among rank-and-file Catholics. Most Catholics say, as they have been saying for over a year now, that their church hierarchy is doing a bad job of handling the controversy. Forty percent of Catholics say they are giving less to the church as a result of the scandal -- up 10 points from March.

A preliminary analysis of our Gallup data on religious behavior shows a significant drop in self-reported church attendance among Catholics from 2000-2001 to 2002. Church attendance among Protestants over this same time period has remained the same.

The Bible

The percentage of Americans who are biblical literalists -- that is, believe the Bible is literally true, word for word -- has been gradually falling. Our most recent update on this measure finds that 30% of Americans adopt a literalist position on the Bible, while 52% say the Bible is inspired by God, but shouldn't be taken literally. Fifteen percent say the Bible is an ancient book of fables. This is the first time in 12 surveys (dating back to 1976) that a majority has chosen the "inspired Word of God" option. In the 1970s and 1980s, closer to 4 in 10 routinely chose the literalist perspective.


Finally, public opinion on Iraq continues to coalesce around three basic conclusions: 1) Americans don't trust Saddam Hussein and believe that Iraqi pronouncements and documents are highly likely to be lies; 2) Americans don't necessarily believe that the U.N. inspectors are going to be able to get around these lies and find Iraqi weapons or weapons manufacturing sites, but the public wants the inspectors to continue to try; and 3) Americans are willing, in principle, to support military action against Iraq, but are in no hurry and want the United Nations involved every step of the way.

American public opinion on Iraq is potentially subject to considerable change. Two-thirds of Americans say that, depending on what happens in the weeks ahead, they could change their views about going to war against Iraq. I think it is fair to say, as well, that the majority of Americans expect that sooner or later there will be some sort of war involving Iraq. This is not surprising, given the drumbeat of news about U.S. military war plans that has filled newspapers and television news shows in recent weeks.


Dr. Frank Newport is a Gallup Senior Scientist and the author of Polling Matters (Warner Books, 2004) and The Evangelical Voter.

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