If President Bush is in so much trouble, Democrats wonder, shouldn't John Kerry have a much bigger lead? Why does this election still look close?
And so they worry: Maybe the Republican attacks on Kerry are working; maybe voters are fearful of turning to someone new and untested in a time of war. "The senator from Massachusetts has given us ample grounds to doubt the judgment and the attitude he brings to bear on vital issues of national security," Vice President Cheney charged at Westminster College last month.
Here's another possibility: Kerry's doing just fine. The prospective Democratic nominee told a fretful supporter in St. Louis last week, "Listen, man, I don't know if you saw the polls, but we're in good shape." Is he? Tad Devine, senior adviser to the Kerry campaign, put it this way: "No incumbent president who has been as low as President Bush is today has won re-election."
Look at the last three incumbents who won re-election—Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. In May of the year they went on to be re-elected, Nixon's job-approval rating was 62 percent in the Gallup Poll, Reagan's was 54 percent, and Clinton's was 55. All were well above 50.
Now look at three incumbents who lost. In May, Gallup showed Gerald Ford at 47 percent approval, Jimmy Carter at 38 percent, and George H.W. Bush at 37. All were below 50.
Where is the current president now? Forty-six percent in the latest Gallup Poll (May 7-9). That doesn't look good.
The latest Newsweek poll (May 13-14) has the president's approval rating even lower, at 42 percent. Bush could be headed below the fatal 40 percent line that spelled doom for his father and for Carter.
But, of course, the incumbent's approval ratings are only half the story. "So what if President Bush has problems?" Republicans say. "We're going to turn this election into a referendum on John Kerry." Matthew Dowd, senior strategist for the Bush-Cheney campaign, said, "We're in that in-between place where comparisons between the two candidates are going to matter a great deal."
Check out the trial heats matching challengers against incumbents. At this point in 1972, 1984, and 1996—the years when incumbents got re-elected—presidents held double-digit leads over their challengers in the Gallup Poll. Nixon was almost 20 points ahead of George McGovern (53 percent to 34 percent). Reagan was 10 points ahead of Walter Mondale (53 percent to 43 percent). And Clinton was leading Bob Dole by 15 points (49 percent to 34 percent).
Now look at years when incumbents lost. In May 1976, Ford, who had pardoned Nixon for his role in the Watergate cover-up, trailed Carter by 13 points. But in May 1980, Carter was ahead of Reagan, 40 percent to 32 percent. And in May 1992, the first President Bush was leading Clinton, 35 percent to 25 percent. Clinton was running third, behind both Bush and Ross Perot.
Even doomed incumbents were in the lead at this point, except in 1976. Ford, the exception, had never been elected in the first place.
The latest trial heats show Bush 2 points ahead of Kerry in the Gallup Poll (47 percent to 45 percent), 1 point ahead of Bush in the Newsweek poll (43 to 42 percent), and 5 points ahead of Bush in the Time/CNN poll (49 to 44 percent). Either the race is virtually tied or the challenger is ahead by a small margin. That's rare this early in the campaign. It's also a good sign for Kerry.
Bush is in trouble. In the past, he got extremely high marks for his handling of terrorism and low marks on the economy, with Iraq somewhere in between. Now, according to the Time poll, the number of Americans who think the president is doing a good job on the economy has dipped below 40 percent for the first time. By 55 percent to 39 percent, the public says that Bush is doing a poor job on the economy.
Continuing job gains appear to have done nothing to boost public confidence in the economy. For one thing, many newly created jobs are part-time ones. Moreover, soaring gasoline prices are hurting many more Americans than job gains are helping.
Bush's rating on Iraq is now just as bad as his rating on the economy—55 percent to 39 percent negative. His Iraq ratings have taken a real tumble since the insurgency began. The American public is split over whether the United States was right to go to war in the first place.
The big shock has to be Bush's ratings on terrorism, which since 9/11 had been the president's strong suit. The public is now divided over whether Bush is doing a good job (46 percent) or a poor job (47 percent) on terrorism. Asked which candidate would handle the war on terrorism better, Kerry has nearly caught up with Bush (49 percent prefer Bush, 42 percent Kerry). If Bush doesn't have a solid lead on terrorism, he's in serious trouble. It's the only issue he has left. The Time/CNN poll shows Kerry ahead on health care, the environment, jobs, the deficit, and even taxes!
The Bush campaign's strategy has been to rally the conservative base. That sometimes works in low-turnout midterm elections, such as the ones in 1994 and 2002. But in a presidential election, a lot of swing voters turn out. And right now, they're not happy with Bush.