In the past month, George W. Bush has gone from a commanding lead over John Kerry to a statistical tie and then finally to a narrow edge over his opponent, according to public opinion polls. What has caused this spate of instability and, more importantly, can it enable us to predict which candidate will win and why?
To answer these questions, we have to rewind our political clocks back to September 2004. It seems like ages ago. George W. Bush walked out of the Republican convention as the next President of the United States, holding a commanding 14-point lead over John Kerry, according to the much-respected Gallup poll. Coming into the first presidential debate, most political experts expected Bush to cushion his lead, since the debate was exclusively dedicated to foreign policy, and this was supposedly Bush’s strongest issue. And yet, after the first debate, Bush’s lead completely evaporated. When the dust settled, Kerry narrowly led in the Gallup poll, 49 to 48 percent.
It quickly became apparent to all but the most diehard conservative activists that Kerry had won the debate. But many analysts misunderstood what caused the lurch in public opinion. Kerry did not change peoples’ perception of Bush as a President. In fact, Bush’s job approval rating was largely unchanged after the debate, according to Gallup and other survey organizations.
What happened, then?
The answer is that Americans saw the election in a fundamentally different way. Prior to the debate Gallup asked registered voters, which issue “will be most important to your vote for president?” Before the debate, 17 percent said Iraq was the most important issue. But immediately after the debate, the percentage citing Iraq jumped to 27 percent. This ten-point swing reveals that Kerry closed the gap by repositioning the race from a referendum on terrorism (where Bush is very strong) to a referendum on Iraq (where Bush is weak).
For most conservatives, the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq are inseparable. And yet for most Americans they are two distinct issues. While the vast majority of Americans support Bush’s handling of homeland security and the war against al-Qaeda, they have serious doubts about the U.S. mission in Iraq. A majority of Americans (55 percent) say the war in Iraq is going “badly,” according to a CBS News/New York Times poll. Seventy-one percent of Americans say the level of casualties in Iraq is “unacceptable,” according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll. Less than one third think we will “be able to establish and maintain a stable, democratic government” in Iraq, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey.
Iraq has become a ball and chain on President Bush’s re-election campaign. According to the CBS News/New York Times poll, 54 percent of Americans disapprove of the way Bush is handling the situation in Iraq. Just as importantly, 58 percent believe Bush “has not developed a clear plan for dealing with the situation” there. Needless to say, it is extremely difficult for an incumbent to win if voters disapprove of the way he’s handling the biggest issue facing the country.
The silver lining for Bush is that Americans don’t vote on issues in a vacuum. They also vote on character, and it is here where Bush stands on very firm ground. In spite of all the insults and accusations Bush has weathered in the past eighteen months, the President continues to earn the respect of the American people. According to Fox News, voters associate Bush, not Kerry, as the candidate with “stronger convictions” by a commanding 51 to 32 percent margin. And according to ABC/Post, by a 57 to 37 percent margin, people say the statement “strong leader” applies more to Bush than to Kerry.
Not only do Americans respect Bush. They also like him on a personal, emotional level. They think Bush is a sincere Christian (by 60 to 18 percentt, people say Bush is the candidate with “strong religious faith”) and that he’s gosh darn likeable (by 51 to 32 percent, voters select Bush as the guy with “an appealing personality”).
It is true that presidential campaigns are not a popularity contest. Nonetheless, a candidate’s ability to personally relate to voters and to project leadership is actually more important than where he stands on the issues. I refer any doubters to the 2000 presidential campaign, when the likeable, clean-cut Bush defeated an incumbent Vice President in a time of peace and prosperity. More recently, the small lead Bush has opened over Kerry can best be explained by Bush’s confident and jovial performance in the third debate (contrasted with Kerry’s mean-spirited “outing” of Mary Cheney).
And I think ultimately, it is character and personality that will save Bush on Election Day. What is amazing is that in spite of Bush’s shortcomings on Iraq, people continue to trust Bush over Kerry to handle the situation there (51 percent to 45 percent in the newest Gallup survey). The explanation for this discrepancy is that Americans are willing to cut Bush some slack for his failings because of the rapport they have established with him. It is precisely because voters trust Bush and see him as a strong, principled leader that they are willing to stick it out with him on Iraq for just a bit longer.
That should be enough to earn Bush a second term. Call it a leap of faith, if you will.
Todd Weiner works at Luntz Research Companies, a communications firm in Alexandria, Virginia.