There are a couple of major new polls out today that, coupled with a survey I mentioned last week, provide a pretty clear view of where things stand as this long campaign season begins.
All three put Sen. John Kerry ahead of President Bush by slim margins, and for similar reasons: many Americans are pessimistic about the state of the economy, dissatisfied with the way Bush has handled it and believe Kerry could do a better job. The economy is almost always the central question in most presidential campaigns, and the present “jobless recovery” has done little to assuage concerns. This is true not only among Democrats, but among independent and undecided voters, whose decisions will determine the outcome in November.
However, Bush still gets majority support for his handling of the “war on terrorism.” (I put that phrase in quotes because I believe that, unlike the attack on Afghanistan, the war in Iraq had more to do with an unrealistic desire to redraw the political map of the Middle East than it did with terrorism.) Though it’s too painful to dwell on, another major terrorist attack on U.S. soil is probably inevitable at some unknowable time. If that time is before November, it could give Bush a big lead overnight.
In addition, Bush’s supporters appear to back their man more emphatically than do Kerry’s. As the Washington Post’s story today about the new Post/ABC News poll puts it: "Nearly nine in 10 Bush supporters say they ‘strongly’ support him, compared with two in three Kerry voters. In addition, six in 10 Kerry supporters say they are voting for the Democrat more as a protest against Bush and his policies, and not because they are attracted to Kerry. By contrast, nearly nine in 10 Bush voters say their support is based on their feelings toward the president, not disapproval of Kerry.“
It’s worth noting, though, that today’s USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll says 45 percent of those it surveyed said they were “certain” to vote for Kerry, compared with 38 percent for Bush.
Perhaps significantly – a single poll is never very persuasive, and I haven’t seen this reflected in other results – the USA Today poll also found that Bush and Kerry were tied for support among men, who normally favor Republicans. Kerry has a huge lead among women.
One last point: Bush’s ads using images of 9/11 to help make the point that he’s a strong leader for difficult times seem to have backfired. Of those surveyed, 54 percent said use of 9/11 images was inappropriate. If this is really how Americans at large feel (and again, this is one poll), the ads could prove a serious miscalculation by Bush’s strategists. The polls I’m covering here – and, no doubt, the Bush campaign’s own surveys – show that the war is Bush’s one big advantage against Kerry. If the 9/11 ads offended voters, the Bushies are going to find it difficult to step back from them and yet find effective ways of making the same point.
The deeper this administration gets into problems that are either of its own making (the Iraq war) or that it is perceived as mishandling (the economy), the more unsure its judgment seems. I wouldn’t say Bush is floundering in the deep end of the pool yet, but that cocky crawl stroke of his looks like it’s breaking down.
Washington Post (free site registration may be required)
Pew Center for People and the Press
Update: Billmon noticed something in the Washington Post poll that I overlooked: It, too, has Bush and Kerry essentially tied for male votes. He also makes some additional interesting points about the numbers.