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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Are We Off On the Wrong Track?

Apparently more and more Americans think so, according to a just-released Democracy Corps poll.  In a mid-May poll by the same group, 51 percent said the country was going in the right direction, compared to 41 percent who said was off on the wrong track (a 10 point right direction advantage).  But now, the public is about evenly split, with 46 percent saying right direction and 45 percent saying wrong track (a mere 1 point right direction advantage).  If wrong track responses continue to rise, that’s a serious danger sign for the incumbent administration.
The poll also asked respondents whether the country should continue going in the direction Bush is headed in various areas or go in a significantly different direction.  By 17 points, the public wants a new direction on health care and on the Federal budget/deficits, by 11 points, they want a new direction on the economy, by 9 points, they want a new direction on retirement/Social Security and on the environment, by 6 points they want a new direction on energy policy and by 5 points they want a new direction on prescription drugs for seniors.
In a problem sign for Democrats, however, the public actually wants to continue in Bush’s direction on support for education, albeit by a modest margin (3 points).  This is an area the public rates second in importance after the economy and jobs and where Democrats are generally viewed as the party better able to handle the issue.  So the Democrats’ failure to sell the public on the need for a new direction in support for public education looms large.  This is an issue they will need to open up a lead on if they hope to do well in 2004.
Areas of Bush strength include, of course, the war on terrorism (by 37 points), foreign policy (by 14 points) and respect for the US in the world (by 10 points).  Interestingly, he does not do well in two traditional areas of Republican strength: taxes (the public is split evenly on staying with Bush or going in a new direction) and the moral climate in the country (Bush only gets a 1 point advantage).
The poll also finds signs that the situation in Iraq is getting a “wrong track” feel for more and more of the public.  For example, in mid-May, 61 percent said the war in Iraq was worth the cost in US lives and dollars, compared to just 33 percent who thought the war wasn’t worth the cost–a 28 point margin.  In this new poll, that margin has been cut in half, with 41 percent now saying the was wasn’t worth the cost (including a 9 point increase, to 32 percent, in those who strongly believe the war wasn’t worth the cost), compared to 55 percent who say the war was worth the cost.
Moreover, the poll finds a plurality of the public (by 49 percent to 46 percent) saying they cannot trust what the government is saying about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.  Bush fares better on the same question, with the public saying by 56 percent to 40 percent that they can trust what he says about Iraq’s WMDs, but it’s clear which way the wind is blowing on this one.  As distrust in the government increases on this issue, distrust of Bush will likely move in the same direction (and there’s already 40 percent who don’t trust him).  For a President who relies so much on his bond with the American people, that could be a problem.  A big problem.