Election 2004

Public Opinion Watch: August 2-29

Did the Swift Boat attacks really hurt Kerry? Do voters think the economy is in good shape? The mess and mystery of election polling for 2004 gets explained.
In this edition of Public Opinion Watch:
(From polls and related articles from August 2-29, 2004)

  • The Race at the Start of the Republican Convention

  • Voters Still Thumbs-Down on Economy



The Race at the Start of the Republican Convention

The Myth: The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (SBVT) controversy seriously harmed the Kerry campaign. Bush comes into his convention in much better political shape than he has been for quite a while.

The Reality: The race has changed little since the start of the SBVT controversy. Bush enters his convention with basically the same political vulnerabilities he had previously.

Let's go to the numbers. The poll that best provides a before-SBVT damage and after-SBVT damage picture of the horse race is the Gallup poll. That's because Gallup polled both on August 9-11 – right before media coverage of SBVT really heated up – and on August 23-25, right after the coverage peaked and just as the Kerry campaign began its push-back.

What do the Gallup numbers show? As Gallup's release on their latest poll succinctly puts it: "No Change in Presidential Race Despite Attack Ads.” Just so.

In fact, to the extent their numbers show change, it's in the opposite direction to the one everyone is assuming. In their August 9-11 poll, Kerry was behind by one point (47-48) among registered voters (RVs); in their August 23-25 poll, Kerry's ahead by a point (48-47). (Bush's approval rating also declines by 2 points between the two surveys).

So why were (and are) people so convinced SBVT hurt? There were the Annenberg Election Survey numbers, of course, on how many voters had heard of the the SBVT charges (more than half the country) and found them somewhat or very believable (46 percent of the group that had heard of the charges). But, as numerous observers have pointed out, outside of the ranks of partisan Republicans almost all of these “believers” were those that found the charges “somewhat,” rather than “very,” believable, indicating little more than a willingness to consider the charges rather than a firm belief they are true. And these data were collected prior to the Kerry campaign’s push-back on the issue; later Annenberg data indicate that the controversy, in the end, did not change the number of voters who believe Kerry did not earn all his medals. In addition, a plurality of voters now believe that the Bush campaign was behind the SBVT attack ads, despite the SBVT contention that they were acting independently.

Then there were the August 23-25 Gallup numbers on likely voters (LVs), showing Bush ahead by 3 points, that fed the impression Bush was pulling ahead. But these LV numbers also represented no change from previous Gallup polls, which had showed Bush ahead among this group by about the same margin. (Indeed, it's interesting to note that in the entire month of August only one poll – Gallup – showed Bush ahead among LVs in the Bush-Kerry matchup and it did so three times and by almost identical margins. Must be something going on with that Gallup LV model.)

There was also the Los Angeles Times (LAT) poll, which showed Bush with a 3 point lead among RVs, released right after the peak of the mudslinging. But the LAT poll had no point of comparison in August, much less close to the beginning of the SBVT controversy, so the LAT result showed nothing about change due to SBVT. Moreover, the LAT result was an outlier among the month's RV polls – every other poll taken during the month (save one Gallup poll) – had Kerry tied or ahead in the Kerry-Bush matchup.

Finally, there is the most plausible – in my view – source of this sentiment: the fact that a number of polls show a tightening of the horse race between very early August (i.e., right after the Democratic convention) and late August. That tightening ranges from 2-7 points, turning a small post-convention Kerry lead into a smaller Kerry lead or tie, depending on the poll. But the most plausible hypothesis for this tightening is a natural post-convention decay in Kerry's support (given a lack of fresh, positive coverage of Kerry's campaign) over the course of the month, rather than the specific effect of the SBVT brouhaha on voters’ evaluations of Kerry.

So where does that leave us? In my view, about where we were before the Democratic convention. In fact – in addition to the horse race – if you look at Kerry-Bush comparisons on issues and on personal characteristics, the results of a number of polls seem almost to replicate the results of that particular poll prior to the Democratic convention.

And another critical thing hasn't changed at all – Bush's ratings in all his vulnerable areas (the economy, Iraq, health care, etc.), as well as voters' sense of whether the country is going in the right direction and whether a different direction is needed. These indicators have all continued to be quite negative (in some cases, have actually worsened) over the course of August, including the period allegedly affected by the SBVT controversy (see the next section).

This is Bush's problem. He's got to run on something and, unfortunately for him, he has precious little to run on other than being the president of 9/11. The SBVT ads and subsequent media feeding frenzy didn't change that equation in the slightest – and it's not an equation that favors Bush's re-election.

Sources for this section:
Annenberg Election Survey poll of 2,209 adults released August 20, 2004 (conducted August 9-16, 2004 by Schulman, Ronca, Bucuvalas)

Los Angeles Times poll of 1,597 adults, released August 25, 2004 (conducted August 21-24, 2004

David W. Moore, “No Change in Presidential Race Despite Attack Ads,” Gallup News Service, August 27, 2004.

*********************************
Voters Still Thumbs-Down on Economy

Despite the tightening of the horse race in Bush’s favor over the course of August, voters’ evaluations of Bush in key areas continue to be strikingly negative. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the economy and related issues.

This pattern can be seen across a wide range of polls taken near the end of August. For example, in the LAT poll cited above — unusually favorable to Bush in terms of the horse race — Bush’s (net negative) approval rating on the economy is essentially unchanged since July and his economic policies receive stinging evaluations in terms of their effect on the country and on individuals. Barely more than one quarter of voters (27 percent) believe Bush’s policies have made the country better off than it was when he became president, compared to 71 percent who believe his policies have either made the country worse off (45 percent) or produced no change (26 percent). (That’s 16/81 among independents).

Similarly, just 28 percent believe Bush’s policies have made them as individuals better off than they were when he became president, compared to 70 percent who believe his policies have either made them worse off (27 percent) or kept them about the same (43 percent).

Or take the Gallup poll cited above. In this poll, less than one third (32 percent) say Bush’s tax cuts have mostly helped the US economy over the last three years, compared to 61 percent who say the cuts have either had no effect (29 percent) or mostly hurt the economy (32 percent). (Note that this result is actually worse than the result of a similar question about Bush’s tax cuts that Gallup asked in January.) Similarly, just 30 percent say Bush’s tax cuts have mostly helped their family over the last three years, compared to 68 percent who say the cuts have either had no effect (48 percent) or mostly hurt their family (20 percent).

A new ABC News/Washington Post (WP) poll even has Bush’s approval rating on the economy dropping since late July, from 47 percent approval/50 percent disapproval to 45 percent/52 percent (though note that the latter reading is among RV’s, not all adults). The poll also finds that, among RVs, the number that say most Americans are better off financially than they were in 2001 actually declined during August from a hardly robust 18 percent to a mere 14 percent. An amazing 85 percent now say that most Americans are either not as well off (46 percent) or in about the same shape (39 percent) as they were in 2001.

Finally, the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal (WSJ) poll also finds Bush’s approval rating on the economy going down from 45 percent approval/49 percent disapproval among voters in June to 43/52 today. The poll also finds that voters’ evaluation of the economy’s performance in the last year has deteroriated since July. At that time, 37 percent said the economy had gotten better in the last year, compared to 31 percent who said it had gotten worse. Today, just 29 percent say the economy has improved in the last year, compared to 33 percent who say it has weakened.

And here’s a couple of statement choices the WSJ poll gave voters that show just how strongly the current of economic sentiment is running against the Bush campaign. The first choice was between:

  • The economy is improving for middle- and working-class families. More than one million new jobs have been created in the last six months and low interest rates mean that more people own their homes now than ever before.


and:

  • The economy is NOT improving for middle- and working-class families. We have one million fewer jobs now than we did in 2000 and health care costs continue to rise.


The result: 61 percent endorse the second, negative statement and only 30 percent agree with the first, positive statement, which essentially summarizes the Bush campaign’s position on the economy.

And what about Bush’s tax cuts? Here’s the choice the WSJ poll gave voters:

  • The tax cuts have mostly benefitted the wealthy, and have hurt middle- and lower-income families because they led to cuts in education, law enforcement, and health care.


or:
  • The tax cuts have benefitted ALL Americans, because taxpayers of all incomes received a tax cut, and this helped strengthen the economy by giving people more of their own money to spend.

In this case, 55 percent endorse the first, negative statement about the cuts, compared to 38 percent who agree with the second, positive statement — again, a fair summary of the Bush campaign’s official position on the cuts.

These and other data suggest that the recent improvement in Bush’s horse race performance is quite soft and will dissipate quickly if the Kerry campaign can return the political debate to the economy and other issues on which Bush is profoundly vulnerable.

Sources used for this section:

Los Angeles Times poll of 1,597 adults, released August 25, 2004 (conducted August 21-24, 2004

Hart/McInturff poll of 808 registered voters for NBC News/Wall Street Journal, released August 26, 2004 (conducted August 23-25, 2004)

TNS poll of 1,207 adults for ABC News/Washington Post, released August 30, 2004 (conducted August 26-29, 2004)
Ruy Teixeira is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and The Century Foundation.
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