Doubts Create a Voter Split Over Bush

Times Staff Writer

While most Americans view President Bush as a strong leader and say they like him personally, doubts about his performance and agenda have produced an electorate divided almost in half on whether he deserves a second term, a Times Poll has found.

The survey, coming less than one year before the 2004 election, shows that Americans remain split over Bush along many of the same lines of gender, race and cultural values that separated the country during his razor-thin victory over Democrat Al Gore in 2000.

When the poll asked registered voters whether Bush deserved reelection, 42% said yes and 46% said no, a difference within the survey's margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points. When asked whether they were more likely to support Bush or the Democratic nominee in 2004, voters again lined up in almost equal camps, with the president trailing, 38% to 42%, also within the margin of error.

The survey suggests two distinct tensions in public opinion could shape Bush's political fate.

On one axis, voters appear to be weighing generally positive assessments of his personal characteristics -- from likability and leadership to honesty -- against a more ambivalent view of his policies and their impact on the country.

Along another axis, the poll indicates voters are balancing the first flickers of optimism about the economy against growing anxiety over America's progress in Iraq.

Together, these forces have left Bush in an unstable, though not precarious, position for 2004. His showing against a generic Democrat for 2004 is the same as that of his father, President George H. W. Bush, when the Times asked that question in January 1992. Ten months later, Bill Clinton ousted the elder Bush from the White House.

This Bush, the poll shows, enjoys advantages his father lacked, particularly overwhelming support from his base, traditionally a key to presidential reelection. Eighty-six percent of Republicans say they approve of Bush's performance.

But the poll also shows he has alienated a clear majority of Democrats and raised enough doubts among independents to return the country close to the 50-50 divide that marked the 2000 election.

The Times Poll, supervised by polling director Susan Pinkus, surveyed 1,345 adults from Nov. 15 through 18; included in the survey were 1,144 registered voters. The margin of error for both groups is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The poll finds that Americans have established nuanced judgments of Bush's strengths and weaknesses.

On several personal qualities, Bush scores well. Just over three-fifths of Americans consider him a strong leader; just under three-fifths say they consider him honest and trustworthy.

Those qualities clearly remain central to Bush's appeal for his supporters. "He is impressive; he is a man of integrity," said Christa Snyder, a housewife in Loveland, Ohio, who responded to the poll.

Likewise, Lyle Young, a retired mechanical engineer from Waldport, Ore., emphasized integrity when explaining why he intended to support Bush in 2004. "It seems to me he doesn't play up to the polls. He does what he thinks is best," Young said.

Two-thirds of Americans said they find Bush likable -- including just under three-fifths of Democrats.

But on other personal measures, Bush doesn't fare as well. Asked if Bush understands the problems of people like them, 51% said no and 42% said yes.

Similarly, 51% of Americans said they believed Bush cared mostly about the rich, while 7% said the middle class was his principal concern. (Thirty-seven percent believed he was equally concerned about all income groups.) And the percentage of Americans who believe Bush has a clear idea of where he wants to lead the country fell from 56% in a Times Poll in March to 45% today.

"If he has a plan, it does not include the poor people," said Morene Westfall, an independent from Pearcy, Ark. "We need schools, we need highways, we need all kinds of things. He does not have a plan for that."

The verdict on Bush's performance and policies is equally divided. In contrast to the 68% of respondents who said they liked Bush personally, 46% said they liked his policies; 48% said they disliked those policies.

On the poll's broadest measures of performance, Bush received mixed results. Half of those responding said the country was moving on the wrong track -- a level of discontent that usually signals trouble for the party holding the White House.

Bush's overall approval rating, though, was healthier: 54% of those polled said they approved of his performance as president; 41% disapproved. That's the lowest positive rating he has received in a Times Poll during his presidency, but slightly higher than in recent surveys by other news organizations.

Yet, following the pattern of responses on Bush's personal qualities, the poll shows Americans reaching disparate conclusions about his performance from issue to issue.

Bush continues to be buoyed by high marks from the public for his response to the threat of terrorism since the Sept. 11 attacks. Of those polled, 59% (including 42% of Democrats and 63% of independents) said they approved of how he is handling the war on terrorism. Likewise, 57% said they believed Bush's policies have made the country more secure.

"On homeland security, I think he got right on it after 9/11 and pushed it through," said Young, the retired mechanical engineer. "And, yes, we've got a [federal budget] deficit for it. But [the terrorists] are not bombing over here, are they?"

But 45% of Americans gave Bush positive marks for his handling of the war in Iraq, while 51% disapproved.

Thirty percent said he is doing a good job handling health-care problems in the U.S.

And although the poll found signs of economic optimism that could help Bush -- 35% believed the economy will look better in six months, compared to 15% who thought it would turn down -- the verdict on his economic management remained negative.

Forty-four percent approved of his management of the economy, while 50% disapproved. Forty-three percent of Americans said they believed Bush's policies had weakened the economy, while 24% thought his approach had strengthened it.

Amid these conflicting, ambiguous judgments, the poll found attitudes toward Bush's reelection developing in ways reminiscent of the 2000 election.

Overall, voters said they prefer a Democrat over Bush in 2004 by 42% to 38%, with 6% saying their choice depended on the eventual Democratic nominee and 12% saying they didn't know. The poll did not match Bush against a specific Democratic candidate, almost all of whom lack widespread name recognition across the nation.

But just as in 2000, there's a sharp gender gap in early attitudes about 2004. Men prefer Bush over a Democrat by 8 percentage points, while women prefer a Democrat by 16 points. Whites give Bush an 11-point lead; minorities prefer a Democrat by 41 percentage points. Among white men, Bush's lead swells to 51% to 28%, while white women split evenly.

Many of the most important divisions in the electorate, as in 2000, follow lines of lifestyle and values rather than economic interests.

Single voters give the Democrat a 20-point edge, while married voters narrowly prefer Bush.

Church attendance, a critical predictor of support in 2000, remains telling: Bush leads by 13 points among voters who attend church at least once a week, while trailing narrowly among those who attend monthly, and running 15 points behind among those who rarely or never attend.

Urban voters prefer the Democrat by 2 to 1, while rural voters back Bush by more than 2 to 1.

Voters who think abortion should be illegal, gay marriage banned and gun control laws loosened all strongly prefer Bush; those on the opposite side of those issues bend even more sharply toward the Democrats.

"I kind of believe like [Bush] does about abortion, and about gun control," said Lonnie McDonald of Dumas, Texas. "He's just more my kind of person than any of the people that are trying to unseat him.... To me, they're too darn liberal."

By contrast, the poll showed that voters no longer fit as reliably into the old economic pattern that saw Republicans strongest among the affluent and Democrats relying primarily on those below the median income.

Democrats lead Bush both among Americans earning less than $40,000 annually and families earning $60,000 to $100,000, the poll found. Bush leads strongly among families clustered right around the median income -- those earning between $40,000 to just under $60,000 -- and those who earn more than $100,000 a year.

In another measure of the evolving social structure of U.S. politics, those who drink wine with dinner prefer a Democrat over Bush for 2004 by 7 percentage points. Those who drink beer back Bush over a Democrat by 23 percentage points.

As for the Democratic race itself, the poll suggested it remains largely unfocused for voters outside the early states, such as Iowa and New Hampshire, where the candidates are concentrating their time and advertising. Half of voters who said they intend to vote in the Democratic primaries indicated they were following the race closely.

Those voters expressed markedly different preferences than those Democrats who aren't yet tuned in. Among those following the race closely, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean leads with 20%, followed by retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark with 14% and Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry with 10%.

Among those not closely following the race, the leaders are Sen. Joe Lieberman, Gore's 2000 running mate, with 13% and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, the former House Democratic leader, with 10%; Dean draws 4%.

*

Times staff writer Susannah Rosenblatt contributed to this report.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

2004 presidential politics

Q: Are things in this country generally going in the right direction or are they seriously off on the wrong track? (answer presented as a graphic)

Q: Do you approve or disapprove of the way George W. Bush is handling... Approve Disapprove His job as president 54% 41 The war on terrorism 59% 35 The situation in Iraq 45% 51 The economy 44% 50 Health care 30% 50

Q: Do you have a good idea where Bush wants to lead the country, or are his goals not very clear? A good idea 45% Goals not very clear 49

Q: Would you say that Bush... Yes No Is a strong leader 61% 31 Is honest and trustworthy 56% 34 Understands the problems of people like you 42% 51

Q: Would you say that Bush cares more about... Rich people 51% Middle-income people 7 Poor people - All equally 37

Q: Which of the following problems should get the highest priority from the Bush administration? Economy/Jobs 60% Terrorism 27 Iraq reconstruction 8 All (Volunteered) 4

Q: Do you think the nation's economy is doing... Well 50% Badly 49

Q: Compared to when Bush became president three years ago... Better off Not as well off Same I am financially 22% 27 50 The country is financially 18% 54 25

Q: Over the past three years, have Bush's economic policies made the country's economy... Stronger 24% Weaker 43 Had no effect 25

Q: If the Democratic presidential primary or caucus were being held in your state today, for which of the following candidates would you vote? Democratic Primary/Caucus Voters* Howard Dean 12% John Edwards 3 Wesley K. Clark 11 Al Sharpton 3 Joe Lieberman 11 Dennis A. Kucinich 1 Richard A. Gephardt 10 Someone else (Volunteered) 1 John F. Kerry 7 Don't know 37 Carol Moseley Braun 4

* Includes registered Democrats and, in some states, independents and other voters who are permitted to vote in the Democratic primary or caucus in that state. Notes: Results shown are among all U.S. adults unless otherwise indicated. "-" indicates less than 0.5%. Numbers may not total 100% where don't know responses are not shown. Times Poll results are also available at www.latimes.com/timespoll.

How the poll was conducted: The Times Poll contacted 1,345 adults nationwide, including 1,144 registered voters and 662 Democratic primary and caucus voters, by telephone Nov. 15-18. Telephone numbers were chosen from a list of all exchanges in the nation. Random digit dialing techniques were used so that listed and unlisted numbers could be contacted. The entire sample of adults was weighted slightly to conform with census figures for sex, race, age and education. The margin of sampling error for all adults and registered voters is 3 percentage points in either direction; among Democratic primary/caucus voters it is 4 points. For certain subgroups the error margin may be somewhat higher. Poll results can also be affected by factors such as question wording and the order in which questions are presented.

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