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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Stay Calm and Look Closely at the Data

Gallup has released new data that have led to quite a bit of media comment and need to be sorted out. What are the key findings of this poll and how plausible are they?
The first thing to note is that the poll confirms the erosion of support for Bush’s handling of the war on terror. Since that support is essentially the foundation on which Bush is building his re-election effort, bad news in this department, in my view, more than cancels out any good news for Bush on other fronts (which I’ll get to in a moment).
According to the poll, Bush’s approval rating on handling terrorism is now down to 58 percent, by far the lowest he’s ever registered, and his disapproval is up to 39 percent, by far the highest he’s ever registered. That’s very significant and I find it hard to believe that the importance of this trend could be overlooked…..but it was, by USA Today, whose story on the poll by Richard Bendetto was headlined “Majority Supports Bush on Terrorism“. Apparently the fact that his job rating on terrorism is still over 50 percent is deemed more important than the fact that it’s falling rapidly.
The poll also finds the public: (1) endorsing the idea that Bush misled the public for political reasons (53-44); (2) saying that the Bush administration, based on pre-9/11 information, did not do all that could be done to prevent the 9/11 attacks (54-42); and (3) believing that the Bush administration is covering up something about its intelligence information concerning possible terrrorist attacks before 9/11 (53-41).
In addition, the public is now split on: (1) whether to believe Richard Clarke (44 percent) or the Bush administration (46 percent) on whether the administration paid enough attention to the terrorist threat before 9/11; (2) whether Bush after 9/11 paid enough attention to the al Qaeda threat (49 percent) or did not pay enough attention because he was too concerned about Saddam Hussein (46 percent); and (3) whether the Iraq war is part of the war on terrorism (50 percent) or an entirely separate military action (48 percent). (Note that the latter question returned a healthy 57-41 majority in favor of the Iraq war being a part of the war on terrorism when it was first asked last August.)
I’d say some very serious doubts have been raised here–doubts that threaten Bush’s case for re-election in the most fundamental way.
The poll also finds Bush’s ratings tanking in two domestic areas. On the economy, his rating is now 42 percent approval/55 percent disapproval–tied with last October for his lowest approval and highest disapproval ever.
On Medicare, his rating is now only 35 percent approval/55 percent disapproval. That’s down 9 points on approval and up 14 points on disapproval just since the beginning of February.
In light of all this, it’s amazing that the Gallup poll pegs Bush’s approval rating at 53 percent, up 3 points since their last survey on March 8-11. Bush hasn’t broken 50 in the other 4 national polls taken since mid-March, averaging 48 percent approval, 5 points below the Gallup rating.
It’s also amazing that Gallup has Bush’s approval rating on Iraq going up to 51 approval/47 percent disapproval, so that Bush is a net +4 on the issue. Newsweek, in contrast, who polled on two days (March 25-26) partially overlapping the Gallup poll (March 26-28), had Bush’s approval rating on Iraq going down to 44 percent approval/50 percent disapproval for a net -6 on the measure.
Quite a contrast. Which brings us to Gallup’s horse race result. Gallup has Bush ahead of Kerry of by 4 points (51-47) among LVs and by 3 points among RVs (49-46). This has occasioned considerable comment because this apparent Bush lead was measured at the end of a very tough week for the administration, with all the damage to Bush’s image outlined above.
Several points are worth noting here. First, there are three national polls proximate in time to the Gallup poll, all of which show a slight Kerry lead: Rasumssen (1 point among LVs on 3/29, rising to 2 points today); Pew (1 point among RVs); and Newsweek (1 points among RVs).
Second, it is possible that the Gallup results are a bit of a pro-Bush outlier because of the composition of the sample. The Gallup report on this poll points out:
There has been no change over the past several weeks in the percentage of Republicans and Democrats supporting their own party’s candidate, or in the candidate preferences of independents. Rather, the increase in support for Bush over the past few weeks comes mostly from an increase in the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as Republicans, and a comparable decline in self-identified Democrats. This could be the natural result of a shift in the political environment now that the Democratic primary season has concluded.
Maybe. Or it could be that, for whatever reason, Gallup happened to draw a disproportionately Republican sample. That would explain some of the anomalies in the poll that have just been outlined. It would also imply, of course, that the bad news for Bush is a bit worse than it appears in this poll.
Another possibility–not mutually exclusive with the pro-Republican sample possibility–is that Gallup caught a movement toward Bush on the heels of the administration’s take-no-prisoners attack on Clarke, including Frist’s “you sir are a scoundrel who may have committed perjury so let’s declassify your earlier testimony”, which Clarke initially did not comment on. Media coverage of Clarke’s pushback on the administration (“sure, let’s declassify everything”) did not really hit until after the weekend, when Gallup’s poll was over. That would be consistent with the data from the Rasmussen tracking poll which did show movement toward Bush on the days covered by the Gallup poll and then movement back toward Kerry afterward.
The final finding from the Gallup poll that is getting a big splash was in a USA Today story on TV ads producing a big Bush surge in battleground states. The story says that Bush has gone from 28 points down to Kerry in mid-February to a 6 point lead today in these states.
One would expect, given that the race has tightened, for Bush to have made the most progress where his ad spending was heaviest. But that’s quite a turnaround and one wonders about its magnitude. First of all, if we’re talking about the effects of the Bush ads, it would make more sense not to start with Gallup’s mid-February poll, which showed Kerry ahead by 12 points among LVs–Gallup’s biggest lead for Kerry and actually a bit of an outlier among other public polls.
It would make more sense instead to start with Gallup’s early March poll, which was proximate to the start of the Bush campaign’s heavy ad spending. We can proxy the Kerry lead at the time in these states by using the “purple state” breakout Gallup used in its report on that poll (see my March 10 post). In that breakout, Kerry was ahead by 16 points in the purple states, so the swing to today’s 6 point Bush lead is not quite as dramatic.
And I even wonder about that. It’s hard to find this movement toward Bush over the last three weeks in state polls that have been released in various battleground states. Given the magnitude of the shift implied by the Gallup data, you’d think these polls would be chock full of good news for Bush. But, by and large, they have not been.
So, in conclusion, I urge people to remain calm and focus on the many important ways in which Bush’s case for re-election is being steadily undermined. Gallup’s poll is, after all, only one among many public polls, despite the over-abundant media attention it tends to get. One has to consider Gallup’s results in this context to get the full story.

29 comments on “Stay Calm and Look Closely at the Data

  1. Cre8 on

    C’mon, let’s put a Democrat/progressive coalition together and hammer these fascists. Ralph for Attorney General!

  2. thecreature on

    I’m gonna hafta agree with demtom on this one. Never in the history of elections in this country has an incumbent with poor ratings won re-election by raising the negatives of his opponent.
    Carter in 1980 tried to stave off a defeat by making people scared of Reagan, and he may have gotten more votes than he otherwise would have, but he still lost to Reagan by 9 points. Bush tried to stave off a similar defeat by portraying Clinton as “too risky,” and again it boosted him somewhat, but Clinton still beat him by 7 points. To go back even further, Hoover tried in 1932 to make FDR’s liberal proposals seem dangerous, even using the slogan “Play Safe with Hoover,” and we all know how that election turned out.
    Unpopular incumbents (and I think George W. Bush is bordering on unpopular at the moment) have always tried to downplay their negatives by stirring up fear about their challenger. The attacks on Kerry might stick to a degree, but voters have almost always taken Mae West’s advice on this topic: “If you have to chose between two evils, pick the one you haven’t tried before.”

  3. mperloe on

    Kerry’s back to back vacation and surgery have taken him out of play. In addition, Bush still smiles, waves and speaks in brief sound bites. Kerry needs to include more sounds bites, smile a bit more. Kerry needs to be able to convince people that we will feel good if we follow his roadmap. ie, he talks about policies when people want hope and to feel better.

  4. Alan on

    I am trying to warn you people. A new poll released in Pennsylvania shows Bush ahead 46-40. This is a state we should be ahead in and need to win. Wake up John Kerry and Democrats. Smack them back!

  5. space on

    Whenever Kerry is asked about jobs his response should begin, “Well, the first thing we are going to do is stop giving tax breaks to companies who ship jobs overseas.”
    People are justifiably skeptical as to what a president – any president – can do to to stop the job losses. Kerry needs to remind people that Bush is pouring gas on the fire.
    I’d also suggest that Kerry figure out a way to tie Bush’s anti-intellectualism into the picture. For instance, Kerry needs to remind the public how much of our industry is symbiotic with institutions of higher learning. When Bush tries to smear Kerry as an intellectual elitist, Kerry should retort that Bush is wrongly encouraging ignorance instead of encouraging the practice of learning. Our schools will drive the next generation of engineers, doctor, and even artists to push America forward.

  6. BD on

    Just another reminder about the nature of statistics and polling, that margin of error number is not how close the poll is, it is what the odds are that it is completely wrong. Statistically this happens all the time, and this is after all just statistics. The folks that work in the industry love to trade tales of bad polls.

  7. Mark Kind on

    All polls should report the number of busy signals pollsters get. After the last presidential cycle, Brill’s Content revealed that far more Democrats get their news from the Internet than do Republicans. I’m suspicious that during heavily favorable news cycles, Democrats log on to read as much as possible. Those who have dial-up are thus unavailable to take pollsters’ calls. And a majority of them are Democrats.

  8. herb on

    I’ve been for Kerry since the beginning. Long enough to remember when he was “certain to be crushed” by Dean, Clark, whoever based on polls.
    All these polls show is that people are uneasy, unsettled and the dynamic can shift dramatically depending on the events of the day. The good news is as Ruy points out; people have seen what Bush has to offer, if they aren’t firmly buying now they are open to being sold on a change.
    My belief is even these early saturation ads do nothing except drain the Bush coffers which is a good thing. The big squishy middle is not going to pay attention to until August or September. They know it is all only more politician hot air right now.
    There is a long road ahead and all that needs to be done at this point is raise money and build the machine. Let Bush blow his wad and wait to hammer hard when people see what kind of world we are living in next fall. Just like last January, that’s when they will decide and the polls be damned.

  9. AS on

    It’s a bit unfair to characterize Kerry as a “phantom” at this state. Come on, guys, it’s only the beginning of April! He’s been running flat out for a year. Would you rather he took a battery-recharging break in July, or September? Or make a bunch of stupid mistakes because he’s exhausted?
    This early in the cycle, the squishy middle that decides elections bounces their support around like a ping-pong ball. Based mostly on who’s ads they’ve seen most recently (Bush, in most cases). They won’t make any decisions until October. And yeah, Kerry’s negatives are going up, and will continue to go up. His negatives will go up until they hit the roughly 45% that is Bush’s base.
    Polls these days have a feed-back effect that is hard to measure. Partisan R’s read that Kerry is beating their guy in the polls, and all of a sudden you see the effect that Gallup mentions — more respondents identifying themselves as R’s. They’re worried, and so when the pollster calls, they do the survey. Now partisan D’s will read that Bush is winning, so all of a sudden the ID thing will swing back the other way. Happened all the way through the 2000 elections. And the more polls there are (and the more they’re flacked) the bigger the effect gets.

  10. reignman on

    Even if Kerry waits a little longer (Condi Rice) before he gets back into the spotlight (seeing as how Dubya isn’t exactly in the spotlight either), he should at least have a statement on the recent attacks in Iraq, where 9 Americans died.

  11. Jimmy Jazz on

    It was a bit disheartening to see Kerry disappear like that, but it allowed Clarke’s testimony to stand on its own.
    As for the likeability issue, it is a problem, but before he went on vacation I thought Kerry was running a smart, effective campaign. He needs a few soundbite-size themes and he’ll be fine for the next few months, IMO.

  12. PhillyGuy on

    Andrew and Dave:
    While I understand your instict to fret about Kerry’s likability and belief that voters will pick Bush if given a choice between him and the “Phantom of Massachusettes”, I have to respectfully disagree. Presidential elections are about the incumbent and the American people will side with an unknown or “phantom” over the incumbent if they judge the incument not worthy of re-election.
    Demtom’s exambles of Clinton and Reagan are exactly right. Both were demonized by the other party (and much of the press) as a scary (meaning unknown quantity) alternative to the sitting president. On election day, the public sided with the devil that they didn’t know over the one they already knew quite well and were SURE they didn’t like.
    This election, like any other with an incumbent, is a referendum on Bush’s performance as president. Period. All the rest (including negative things like verbal gaffes, too much vacation time, etc…or positive things like an excellent acceptance speech or lots of money) are not enough to reverse the public’s final analysis of the sitting president.

  13. Dave on

    I agree with katy, i think the likeability issue is a bigger problem than people are willing to admit. I am encouraged by Ruy’s breakdown of that Bush is doing poorly on the issues, but, given that, Kerry should be dong a little better than he in the polls. The fact that he isn’t is somewhat worrisome.
    People are going to have trouble warming up the Kerry, he doesn’t resonate with people personally. Issues are important and they should be paramount (they are for me), but people often vote on who they like better.
    I also agree that kerry needs a running mate that balances him. i’ve heard the latest rumors are that Gephardt has the inside track. If indeed that it true, it doesn’t surprise me, since kerry has always like gephardt. i think gephardt is an honorable candidate, but i don’t see him helping Kerry at all, unless someone can show me a poll that Gephardt would help Kerry carry Missouri. Other than that, i don’t see any bump from Gephardt.

  14. rt on

    A few random comments:
    *When it is borne in mind that at one point 70 percent of the public thought Saddam had a direct role in 9/11, public opinion has moved a very long way on that cluster of issues.
    *Sara is right that Clarke has not charged that Bush could have prevented 9/11. In his book he says that such a claim would be facile. (p. 238)
    *In an editorial last week the Washington Post stated that the case that Clarke is wrong about Iraq is very strong. (I don’t have the exact quote handy but I think that is a fair paraphrase.)
    Ok, then, this is what I’d like to see: a nationally televised debate on the ramifications of the Iraq war for the war on terrorism, and on what we most need to be doing now to meet our most pressing national security threats. The debate would feature:
    Richard Clarke
    Charles Krauthammer, George Will, Bill Kristol, the Bush Administration policy leaders who likewise have never served in combat, and any other armchair warriors of that side’s choosing, who managed to commandeer the Post’s editorial page for purposes of promoting the Iraq war.
    In the interests of compassion for the underdog–and to exploit the other side’s vain belief that having more time to talk strengthens its case–Clarke would be limited to half as much time as the other side. He would also have one hand tied behind his back.
    Maybe in this way the clear import of Clarke’s book for present policy purposes can surface and receive something approaching the level of attention so far devoted mostly to the Bush Administration’s pre-9/11 performance and Clarke’s credibility and motivations.
    Of course I’m being tongue-in-cheek. If something like that ever did come to pass, I believe Clarke, who comes across to me as knowing more about what he’s talking about than the rest of them combined, would embarrass them.
    When I think of this Administration’s foreign policy a scene from the (1980s?) movie “Roxanne” comes to mind. Steve Martin is the town’s fire chief. His fire department coworkers are a comically inept group.
    In the midst of yet another drill revealing exciting new ways to screw up, Martin utters something like the following: “I have a dream. I would like to have the people who live in our town think that if they have a fire, calling the fire department would be a *rational* thing to do!!”
    Another analogy that comes to mind is the nickname for many a shaky major league baseball bullpen: The Gasoline Gang.

  15. Andrew on

    It is not surprising that Bush is up in a head-to-head matchup with Kerry, even though Bush is down on a number of important issues. The reason is pretty obvious: Kerry has been AWOL for the past two weeks, except for his appearances in Bush adverts, and various negative quotes he’s given to the press. There’s been nothing positive or substantive from Kerry.
    Even if people don’t like Bush, they’ll still vote for Bush over the Phantom of Massachusetts.

  16. demtom on

    I think there’s way too much misplaced belief that “negative branding” in ads have permanent effect, especially when the election involves an incumbent. The Carter people did an excellent job in 1980 convincing people Reagan was a scary reactionary (granted, they had truth on their side); this was why Reagan never developed a consistent poll lead, despite dismal economic and foreign policy circumstances. I’m sure the White House folk were congratulating themselves on how well they’d done in defining their opponent. But what did it mean, in the end? People submerged their doubts about Reagan and voted for him, because they KNEW Carter wasn’t doing well.
    Same in 1992: by late Spring, Clinton, recipient of serial smears, was widely being dismissed (by press and public) as a certain loser. I remember call-in shows where people asked if he’d consider stepping down as candidate. This mattered not a whit in the end, because Bush was clearly failing as steward of the economy.
    Nowadays, of course, everyone remembers both Reagan and Clinton as brilliant candidates. I assure you, no one was saying that when they were down in the polls.
    The only thing that matters right now is Bush — his performance and how it’s perceived. If jobs don’t start materializing in large numbers, if Iraq doesn’t stop being a hell-hole, people are going to be looking for a replacement, and Kerry is the only alternative. The GOP attack machine can diminish Kerry’s numbers with ads and whatever, but on Election Day, the undecided will glide back to Kerry, as they always do for the challenger. Bush has to WIN this; relying on making Kerry lose is a sucker’s game.

  17. Caty on

    I have to agree that it is pretty scary that Kerry and Bush are so close in the polls. I think it is a likeability problem: Kerry is not well-liked by centrists, nor by progressives. I hope he will hurry up and pick Edwards as a nominee because he can bring the much-needed charm, as well as appeal to independants and working class voters.

  18. AllisonL on

    Thank you! I was incredulous as I read the USA Today story yesterday. I simply could not belive that the writers would so blatantly skew the facts in such pro-Bush manner. Just another example of how biased our news has become.

  19. DH in DC on

    I agree that it’s a good idea to look at the full picture, context, etc. But the end of your piece concerns me greatly: According to your analysis, Bush appears to get a boost of 22% in states where he did an advertising blitz. I don’t care if you say that it’s inflated by 10%, that’s still a HUGE difference. I thought the Dem organizations were running at least some counter ads in these states. If this is the result, I think it’s cause for some alarm.

  20. frankly0 on

    My guess, as is Ruy’s, is that the Gallup poll does indeed give Bush a false high based on an outlier sample set.
    If so, consider what this will likely mean in the long run. Most likely, the NEXT Gallup poll will NOT have an outlier sample set. It’s also most likely, in my view, that the Clarke revelations and its sequelae will indeed take a toll on Bush’s actual numbers. What this would entail is that in that poll, it will look as though Bush has taken a DRAMATIC hit over the revelations, feeding into a “death spiral” meme — the effect we should all be hoping for here.

  21. Carole Hoerauf on

    The entire burden of firing back cannot be put on the Kerry campaign alone. Some Democrats in Congress are hard at work with floor speeches, etc. But there is a void in verbal and action events by others except for endorsing Kerry.
    I feel cutting off the campaign by focusing on one candidate has put debate and excitement off the agenda for these dull months until the convention.

  22. PhillyGuy on

    Thanks for this entry, DR. I need that, although I’ve been telling myself to calm down for a couple of days now, too.
    I keep having to remind myself that it’s a LONG way until November and there are probably going to be many rollercoaster periods when it looks like Bush has tanked and then he rises again (and the same for Kerry). I’m already discounting any polling during the month of August (after the Dem. convention) unless it shows Bush ahead by a mile (then I WOULD be worried for good reason).
    I also keep having to remind myself how telling it is that a sitting “war” president the American people know quite well by now is only polling in the upper forties for approval and often losing out to his challenger in the head-to-head contest. After three years, there’s is only so far up he can go now with voter who know him so well. Based on that notion, I’ve concluded that Bush is either going to win in a squeaker, lose in a squeaker or lose by a landslide (but NOT win in a landslide).
    Two wildcards that neither Bush nor Kerry can control and that will decide this election are Iraq (and Usama Bin Laden) and the economy. If one or both fall Bush’s way, he’ll be impossible to beat. Otherwise, he’ll be hard NOT to beat.
    All the handwringing about Kerry’s performance, strategy, vacation, etc… and Bush’s attack ads defining Kerry as a flip flopping tax raiser, etc… are just background noise by November 2. Anyone who believes Bush ads about Kerry would not have voted for him in the end anyway (and the same is true for Kerry’s ads about Bush).
    As for Kerry’s themes and strategy: keep in mind it’s only March. Kerry will have a well-developed and easily understood theme (we’ve already seen the outline of it in ads emphasizing “opportunity” which is a smart move based on my reading of Stanley Greenberg’s “The Two Americas,” which I highly recommend) by summer. It also heartens me to see how much money is flowing to Kerry’s side either directly or indirectly. He certainly won’t have a problem getting his message heard.
    In summary, take a deep breath and keep your eyes on the prize…

  23. Sara on

    I think it is a great misconception to use terms such as “accusations” with regard to what Clarke has told us over the past ten days or so. In fact, he says very little that was not already on the record — note Clarke quotes Woodward’s interview of Bush in Bush’s “–” words to suggest Bush paid little attention to terrorism or terroristic threats prior to 911 — Why call the President in his own words a Clarke Accusation?
    What Clarke did was put elements of the story in narrative context, something he can do well, because he was a first person witness. By doing that he is able to destroy some myths that have conviently grown around Bush’s track record as a terrorist fighter.
    How would one already know this? Well, I read Wes Clark’s books, supported his campaign, and listened carefully to what Wes said. Among other things he claims that on 811 people in the Pentagon and the White House tried to get to him in his role as CNN commentator, and told him — it was Iraq, and Saddam, not necessarily Al Qaeda alone and Bin Laden. Wes’s sources were many, but apparently his initial contact was from the Canadian Branch of the Neo-Con group leading right back to Wolfowitz. He said he would look at that interpretation if offered evidence, but none was forthcoming. So he commented in terms of the evidence available — and wondered why the pressure to foreground Iraq was so strong.
    So — we have Clarke, and Clark, and Woodward and Paul O’Neil, all of whom are coming forth, or have come forth with narrative myth busting information. They are not making accusations, they are putting myth-disconfirming evidence on the table.

  24. Peter on

    The impeachment saga went on for many many months, and actually involved attempting to remove him from office. Clarke’s accusations are coming on the heels of recent memory where Bush was already seen as confused and/or misled about WMD (sadly most people don’t believe he lied), and of the much-publicized efforts to stonewall this commission. And even then much of the media attention has focused on Condi Rice and her not wanting to testify; not Bush.
    I think that when terrorism is brought up most people automatically flock to Bush. He’s their hero. They hate Democrats because he tells them to. But I don’t think this is anything near the fall ’98 level, when you had the sleaziest and worst of hypocrisy on your TV day in and day out.

  25. markalan on

    It is unbelievable that Kerry is still about even with Bush. Kerry’s campaign seems to be running on empty. Where is the theme or vision??(the anti-bush will do for just so long)
    The fight is definitely lacking-very little and timid response to taxer and flip flopper. Thus being defined by Bush.
    Finally, is anyone in the campaign looking at image? I’m sorry but pics of skiing do not go over well in middle America. (Too elitist, rich and very few Americans ski) Would not a hunting trip with gun in hand been much more smart?
    I’m losing confidence, even though I donate and defend.
    Someone tell the campaign to get a clue!

  26. Paul R on

    I think this latest analysis is good, but is it possible Bush could be benefitting from a backlash similar to what the Republicans experienced in the impeachment proceedings in 1998? It might be hard to convince voters that Bush was responsible for 9/11 as some of the Clarke allegations seem to imply.


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