Why has President Bush been spending so much time back in school? It might have something to do with findings recently reported by Republican pollster David Winston. Here, in pollster jargon, is what Winston found: "When you see Republicans talking about the [education] issue, issue handling improves, which then also improves the generic ballot. When we don't talk about it, it drops off, and so does the generic ballot."
In English, here is what Winston is saying: When Bush talked about education during the 2000 campaign and, again, when he signed the education bill in January, Republicans neutralized the Democrats' advantage on that issue. But when Bush focused on other issues, Democrats reclaimed the lead on the question of which party's House candidate voters expect to support.
Exit polls showed that education was one of the top issues on voters' minds in both the 1996 and the 2000 elections. But there was a sharp contrast between the two years. In 1996, voters who were most concerned with education went for Democratic President Clinton over Republican nominee Bob Dole by a whopping 62 percentage points. In 2000, Democrat Al Gore led Bush by only 8 points among education-minded voters.
Education has long been a Democratic issue. In the 2000 campaign, however, Bush embraced education as his own personal cause. And as president, he got the "No Child Left Behind Act" through Congress. So what happened? Ask Democratic pollster Fred Yang. "I think the president has helped himself on the education issue," he says. "I would argue that, in some respects, he has probably also helped the Republican Party."
Republicans got very excited when polls early this year showed that the GOP had caught up to the Democrats as the party viewed as doing the better job on education. White House senior adviser Karl Rove crowed, "We have succeeded in wiping out a 51-year disadvantage on this issue."
Whichever party leads on education in voters' minds at a given time also leads in polls that ask voters which party they intend to support when they cast their House ballots (the "generic ballot" results that Winston mentioned). That's a good deal for Republicans, except for one thing. "When we don't talk about education, people tend to revert to their previous behavior," Winston says, meaning that the Democrats' advantage is restored. And Republicans are not always comfortable talking about education. "For a lot of our folks, the success we've had on education is a whole new experience," Winston points out.
In fact, the administration made a serious blunder early this month. It proposed a rule change that would have raised the cost of student loans in order to make up for a budget shortfall in the college loan program. The Bush team quickly backed down when the proposal triggered outrage.
So, the president went back to school. And in a recent memo, Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, the House Republican Conference chairman, advised colleagues, "Talk about education every time you meet with your constituents, reporters, and supporters."
Why is education such a potent issue? Pollsters say that it appeals to many constituencies, some of whom are swing groups. "The biggest chunk of the electorate is Baby Boomers, a lot of them with kids in school," Yang notes. Winston's list of "education" voters includes Catholics, married mothers, and Hispanics. "There's been a clear effort by the White House to reach out to Hispanics," he observes. "Education is certainly a key to those efforts." Indeed, it is. Hispanic families are strongly child-centered. California Hispanics felt deeply threatened by Proposition 187 in 1994, mainly because it would have denied public school education to the children of illegal immigrants.
The education issue goes beyond personal interest. "Americans understand just how complicated the economy is, that we're ... competing with other countries," Yang says. That understanding is especially true, he adds, of "the businessman who says, 'I need to have a well-educated workforce.' "
Education is a "mommy issue," the kind of issue on which Democrats have always done better with voters. Despite the war on terrorism and tensions in the Middle East, mommy issues are likely to dominate this year's midterm elections. "Right now, voters perceive the parties as headed toward a matchup of Republicans on taxes and terrorism versus Democrats on economy, education, and the elderly," Winston advised Republicans in a memo, adding, "We need more than just taxes/terrorism to win." If 2002 were a presidential election year, the world situation would probably take center stage—but it's not.
"Education is the one issue we found consistently in our polling where voters always want to do more," Yang reports. Democrats are warning that, on education at least, Bush has not put his money where his mouth is. "You cannot do this out of a tin-cup budget, and that's exactly what this administration is trying to do," Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., complains.
Before daddy puts out more money, he wants to know how the money is being spent. Hence, Bush said in Southfield, Mich., on May 6, "My attitude is, if you spend something, you ought to get results for it."
That's why accountability is the centerpiece of Bush's education policy: We must test students every year and hold schools accountable for their progress—or failure. What the president is doing is trying to turn education into a "daddy issue."