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Crunching the Numbers

For the first time, a majority of Americans are critical of the president and his administration's handling of the war.

This presidential contest is beginning to look more like a demolition derby than a marathon, the traditional metaphor used for the ever-lengthening campaigns for the White House. President Bush's campaign is beating Sen. John Kerry black-and-blue, while outside events are inflicting equally severe injuries on the incumbent.

Under most circumstances, the back-to-back improvements represented by the March and April employment reports -- coinciding with impressive rates of economic growth as measured by gross domestic product -- would be enough to assure any president's re-election. But now, as one Republican strategist puts it, the nation's focus is "all Iraq, all the time."

The combination of rising U.S. casualties and disgust over the U.S. abuse of Iraqi prisoners seems to have tipped American public opinion against the war. For the first time, a majority of Americans are critical of the president and his administration's handling of the war. Plus, a sense of futility about the U.S. involvement in Iraq is setting in.

The barometer of presidential strength that some have labeled "the Dow Jones indicator of American politics" is pointing to trouble for Bush's re-election campaign. That gauge is tied to voters' sense of whether the country is headed in the right director or is on the wrong track. According to the May 1-3 NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey conducted by Peter Hart and Robert Teeter, only 33 percent of 1,012 registered voters thought the country was headed in the right direction. Fifty percent responded that it was on the wrong track. Likewise, among the 1,000 adults interviewed in the May 3-5 Associated Press/Ipsos poll, 38 percent said "right direction," but 58 percent said "wrong track."

As veteran Republican pollster Steve Lombardo noted, the " 'wrong track' is approaching the danger zone for an incumbent." He added that "some polls show it as high as 62 percent" and suggested that its current level is "most likely a result of Iraq volatility and the prisoner-abuse scandal." Lombardo stressed that the "wrong track" figures are "hugely problematic for the president."

A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted May 7-9 showed for the first time that a majority of respondents, 51 percent, disapproved of Bush's overall job performance. His approval rating was just 46 percent. Other polls released in the last three weeks have put Bush's approval rating at 44 percent (Pew/Princeton Survey Research), 46 percent (CBS/New York Times), 47 percent (NBC/Wall Street Journal), 48 percent (AP/Ipsos), and 49 percent (the previous Gallup survey). Those results firmly establish that Bush's favorable rating is below the magic 50 percent point and place it lower than where winning presidents have been at this point in an election year. (For detailed results from nine polling organizations' national surveys about Bush's job performance and the 2004 presidential campaign, see http://www.cookpolitical.com/races/presidential/default.php.)

Bush's standing remains above where losing incumbents were at this point in their tenure: President George H.W. Bush had Gallup job-approval ratings of 40 percent and 41 percent, while President Carter's approval ratings were in the 38-to-43 percent range.

In contrast, President Reagan's approval ratings six months before Election Day ranged from 52 to 54 percent. And President Clinton's were in the 53- to-55 percent range. Still, both Reagan and Clinton had had earlier ratings that were considerably worse. President Nixon's first-term approval ratings dipped into the high 40s, spiked to 62 percent in May, and then settled into the 56-to-59 percent range.

In short, the current president is sitting on the bubble between past winners and losers. At the moment, he's closer to the winners, but his ratings have been dropping while those of his predecessors who went on to win were gaining at this point in their presidencies.

In the NBC/Wall Street Journal survey, when voters were asked whether "George W. Bush deserves to be re-elected," 45 percent of respondents said he ought to get a second term, while 49 percent said he doesn't deserve one.

An interesting dimension in all of this is that, in terms of job-approval ratings, Bush's sum is greater than his parts. In the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, Bush's approval rating on handling the economy is 41 percent. On handling foreign policy, it is 43 percent. Yet his overall approval rating is 47 percent. Similarly, in the AP/Ipsos poll, his approval rating on the economy is 43 percent, his approval rating on handling "domestic issues like health care, education, the environment, and energy" is 42 percent, and his approval rating on handling "the situation in Iraq" is 46 percent, yet his overall approval rating is 48 percent.

Only in "handling foreign-policy issues and the war on terrorism," where he scores a 50 percent rating, does he exceed his overall approval level. (In other polls, when the question is only about Bush's handling of "terrorism" -- rather than about overall foreign policy -- his ratings are impressively high.)

Two interpretations seem plausible. One is that voters are becoming increasingly negative about Bush's performance in dealing with the economy, domestic issues, foreign policy, and Iraq, but voters feel much better about how he's dealt with some other aspects of his job, especially terrorism, and as a result give him a fairly strong overall approval rating.

Another view is that the grades that the public gives Bush on specific components of his job are less partisan than the overall rating they give him. His overall approval rating is thus more likely to reflect the country's even political divide.

The first three major national media polls taken in May indicate that Bush remains locked in a tight contest with his Democratic challenger, Sen. Kerry of Massachusetts. In three-way trial heats (which included independent candidate Ralph Nader), Bush led Kerry by margins of 1, 3, and 4 percentage points among registered voters. In the two polls that included two-way trial heats, Bush and Kerry were tied in one, and Bush was ahead by 3 points in the other.

But since those surveys, Bush's standing has slipped, at least according to the two latest polls. Gallup has Kerry ahead by 5 points among registered voters in a three-way matchup and by 6 points in the two-way race, again among registered voters. Among likely voters, Bush was ahead by a single point, 48 to 47 percent, in the two-way nationwide, and by 5 points in the two-way trial heat in the 16 states whose results were closest in 2000 -- 51 percent to 46 percent.

Most of those 16 states are expected to be battlegrounds again this year. But there are differences between 2000 and 2004: The last campaign's list of 16 included Tennessee, which most observers expect Bush to win handily, but excluded Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, and Louisiana, four states where at least one side is now airing ads.

In a new Pew/Princeton poll, Kerry ran ahead among registered voters by 3 points in the three-way trial heat -- 46 percent for Kerry, 43 percent for Bush, and 6 percent for Nader. In the two-way matchup, Kerry led Bush by 5 points, 50 to 45 percent.

Given the situation in Iraq, one might normally expect Bush to be 5 or 6 points behind, yet it's not clear that he is behind at all at this stage. The reason, of course, is that Kerry has been badly damaged by Bush campaign advertising, which is hampering Kerry's quest to be viewed as a viable alternative to the incumbent. When Hart and Teeter asked in their NBC/Wall Street Journal poll about voters' feelings toward Kerry, 38 percent had positive feelings, 38 percent negative feelings. But within those groups, only 12 percent had a "very positive" feeling, while 22 percent had "very negative" ones.

And although 59 percent of respondents thought that Kerry had the right experience and background to be president, only 34 percent said that they would have "a great deal" or "quite a bit" of confidence in Kerry as commander-in-chief. Sixty-one percent said they had either "just some" or "very little" confidence in him. A whopping 49 percent said that they had some concern over charges that Kerry has a habit of "straddling both sides of issues" -- more than twice the level of concern of any other aspect tested in the poll.

If this presidential election is, in fact, a referendum on the incumbent, then if what appears to be a trend continues -- low "right-direction"/high "wrong-track" numbers, low approval ratings for Bush, a souring on the Iraq situation, and a lack of credit to Bush for an improving economy -- Bush will lose. That will happen, however, only if Kerry is widely viewed as a viable alternative. Today he isn't, though he doesn't miss the mark by much.

Interestingly, while Bush appears vulnerable to being perceived as having made wrong decisions or as having listened more to the rich and to special interests, Democratic strategists say their research indicates that, at least so far, he is not vulnerable on questions of integrity: Voters feel comfortable questioning Bush's performance and decisions, but not his honesty. Bush may have become the mirror image of Clinton. Most voters agreed with Clinton's policy positions but doubted his integrity. They see Bush as a man of integrity but have real questions about his positions and decisions.

If I were commanding the Kerry campaign, I would seriously consider airing positive Kerry ads from now on and leave the dirty work to the pro-Democratic independent groups, who have demonstrated that they know what they are doing. It's easy for independent groups to sling mud. One leading anti-Bush independent group was advised by its lawyers to stay away from positive, pro-Kerry ads, particularly biographical ones, and to stick to comparative or negative ads in order to be on safer legal ground. Anyway, it's harder for outside groups to make swing voters see Kerry as a warm, personable, and capable leader. Only Kerry and his campaign can do that.

By the Numbers

National surveys since the first of the year by nine major polling organizations have found President Bush's job-disapproval rating rising gradually. Meanwhile, Bush continues to do much better against John Kerry when they are in a three-way match that includes Ralph Nader.

Jan. 5-7 AP/Ipsos 42 -- 17
Jan. 7-8 Fox News/Opinion Dynamics 31 -- 22
Jan. 8-9 Newsweek/Princeton Survey Rsch. 41 -- 11
Jan. 9-11 CNN/USA Today/Gallup 38 -- 17
Jan. 10-12 NBC/Wall St. Journal 41 -- 19
Jan. 21-22 Fox News/Opinion Dynamics 39 -- 7
Jan. 22-23 Newsweek/Princeton Survey Rsch. 44 -- -3
Jan. 29-30 Newsweek/Princeton Survey Rsch. 44 -- -2
Jan. 29-Feb. 1 CNN/USA Today/Gallup 48 -- -5
Feb. 4-5 Fox News/Opinion Dynamics 41 -- 4
Feb. 5-6 CNN/Time 42 -- 2
Feb. 5-6 Newsweek/Princeton Survey Rsch. 45 -- -5
Feb. 6-8 CNN/USA Today/Gallup 44 -- -1
Feb. 10-11 ABC/Washington Post 47 -- -9
Feb. 12-15 CBS News/ NYTimes 45 -- -5
Feb. 11-16 Pew/Princeton Survey Rsch. 44 -- 0
Feb. 16-17 CNN/USA Today/Gallup 46 -- -5
Feb. 18-19 Fox News/Opinion Dynamics 41 1 0
Feb. 19-20 Newsweek/Princeton Survey Rsch. 44 -- -3
Feb. 24-27 CBS News/ NYTimes 42 -- -1
Feb. 24-29 Pew/Princeton Survey Rsch. -- -- -4
Mar. 1-3 AP/Ipsos 49 1 --
Mar. 3-4 Fox News/Opinion Dynamics 44 -- 0
Mar. 4-7 ABC/Washington Post 48 -4 -9
Mar. 5-7 CNN/USA Today/Gallup 48 -2 -5
Mar. 6-8 NBC/Wall St. Journal 46 2 2
Mar. 10-14 CBS News/ NYTimes 42 8 3
Mar. 18-19 Newsweek/Princeton Survey Rsch. 44 2 0
Mar. 17-21 Pew/Princeton Survey Rsch. 47 -7 -9
Mar. 19-21 AP/Ipsos -- 3 --
Mar. 23-24 Fox News/Opinion Dynamics 44 1 0
Mar. 25-26 Newsweek/Princeton Survey Rsch. 45 2 -1
Mar. 22-28 Pew/Princeton Survey Rsch. 44 1 -1
Mar. 26-28 CNN/USA Today/Gallup 44 3 3
Mar. 30-Apr. 1 CBS News/ NYTimes 44 -- -5
Apr. 5-7 AP/Ipsos 50 1 --
Apr. 6-7 Fox News/Opinion Dynamics 44 -- -1
Apr. 5-8 CNN/USA Today/Gallup 45 1 -2
Apr. 8-9 Newsweek/Princeton Survey Rsch. 45 -4 -7
Apr. 15-18 ABC/Washington Post 47 5 1
Apr. 16-18 CNN/USA Today/Gallup 45 3 4
Apr. 21-22 Fox News/Opinion Dynamics 44 2 1
Apr. 23-27 CBS News/ NYTimes 47 2 -2
May 1-3 NBC/Wall St. Journal 46 4 3
May 2-4 CNN/USA Today/Gallup 48 1 0
May 3-5 AP/Ipsos 50 3 --
May 4-5 Fox News/Opinion Dynamics 43 -- 3
May 7-9 CNN/USA Today/Gallup 51 -5 -6

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