Presidential Campaigns May Play Cameo Role
No presidential race in modern times has begun earlier, or reached a crescendo as quickly, as the battle between President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry. And yet few presidential contests may pivot more on events that will only unfold closer to election day.
Exactly six months before Americans pick the next president, the campaign is already running at full speed, with massive advertising by each side, fierce exchanges and a barrage of speeches, policy proposals and accusatory e-mails.
But amid all this sound and fury, many strategists in both parties think that “real world” developments in the economy, the struggle against terrorism and the occupation of Iraq are likely to influence the November result more than anything the campaigns do.
“I have never seen a presidential race that is so easy to analyze and so hard to predict, and the reason is that this presidency is at the mercy of ... large events that are substantially outside the control of the administration or anyone else,” said Bill Galston, a former aide to President Clinton.
In part, events loom so large because it may take so little to tip the balance between Bush and Kerry. At the six-month milepost, the country is divided almost exactly in half on Bush, with his approval rating around the 50% mark that historically has separated the presidents who won a second term from those who didn’t.
“The thing that makes this so hard to predict is that [Bush] is really on the cusp,” said Alan I. Abramowitz, a professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta, who developed a model for predicting presidential results. “If he goes up a few points in approval, it is going to look a lot better for him; if he drops down below 50%, he is really going to be in trouble. If he stays where he is, I think we are going to have another really close election.”
Abramowitz and other experts focus so intently on Bush’s standing because reelection campaigns traditionally hinge more on assessments of the incumbent than the challenger. And based on the usual indicators, Bush occupies an ambiguous space between the five incumbent presidents who won new terms since 1956 and the three who lost, including his father, George H.W. Bush.
The younger Bush can point to a higher approval rating and better numbers on key economic measures than the three losing presidents, especially his father in 1992 and President Carter in 1980.
But by late spring of the election year, each of the last five incumbents who won had approval ratings higher than Bush enjoys, according to Gallup polls. And none of them faced an electorate polarized so profoundly.
In such an uncertain environment, confidence and concern mix on both sides. With the economy stirring, Republican pollster Bill McInturff sees Bush edging closer in his overall standing to the presidents who won than to those who lost. “Bush is neither fish nor fowl, but he’s more fish -- closer to the winners -- than he is fowl,” he said.
Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg, however, sees Bush teetering on the brink. “Across a broad range of questions, the number 49% hangs over him,” Greenberg said. “As an incumbent, [he’s] just at the edge of electability.”
Presidential elections, like baseball teams, sometimes look very different in the fall than in the spring, especially when Americans are ambivalent about the incumbent. At this point in 1980, Carter led challenger Ronald Reagan in Gallup polls; Reagan eventually won decisively. At this point in 1992, several polls showed Clinton running third behind the elder Bush and independent Ross Perot; Clinton ultimately won easily.
But by now, the path of recent presidents who won a second term had diverged from those who didn’t. Approval ratings for Carter in 1980 and the elder Bush in 1992 had dropped below 45% by early May, en route to further declines. In 1976, President Ford had slipped just below 50% in approval by midspring -- where he remained through early summer en route to his narrow defeat by Carter.
By contrast, the five presidents who won second terms since 1956 all received positive ratings on their job performance from most Americans at this point.
Eisenhower in 1956 and Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 scored stratospheric ratings of about 70%. Nixon in 1972, Reagan in 1984 and Clinton in 1996 were in situations more akin to Bush’s today, with approval ratings a little more than 50% through midspring. Bush’s rating stood at 52% in the latest Gallup poll, and ranged from 46% to 51% in four other surveys released last week.
There’s no sign Bush is on track to follow his father and Carter into free-falls, or that he can reach the heights of approval scaled by Eisenhower and Johnson. The more relevant question may be whether Bush will follow Ford’s model and remain near the 50% approval level that virtually guarantees a close race, or rise into a comfort zone that provides a clear advantage.
Nixon, Reagan and Clinton saw their approval ratings grow through early summer. Is Bush poised for such a takeoff? One senior Republican strategist familiar with campaign planning said, “I see preliminaries to it, and the preliminaries are driven by the economy.”
Political scientists largely agree that economic trends in the election year influence voters more than a president’s record across his term. Like Bush’s approval rating, economic trends put him somewhere between the presidents who won new terms in the last five decades and those who did not.
A key measure used by Abramowitz in his forecasting was gross domestic product growth in an election year’s second quarter -- March through June. Like other experts, he argues that second-quarter performance correlates most closely with November’s result because voter attitudes about the economy lag months behind changes in its trajectory.
For the five incumbents reelected since 1956, growth averaged 6.3% in the election year’s second quarter. By contrast, the economy grew less than 4% in the second quarters for Ford in 1976 and the elder Bush in 1992, and shrank severely for Carter.
This year’s second-quarter performance, of course, remains to be seen, but in the first quarter the economy grew at 4.2%, according to preliminary figures released Thursday.
The University of Michigan’s monthly poll of consumer confidence, another economic measure experts watch, places Bush much closer to the winners than to the losers.
Gary Langer, polling director for ABC News, calculated that consumer confidence ran above its long-term average during the election year for the five presidents who won since 1956, and below that average for the three defeated. Through April, confidence has run nine points above its long-term average -- about the level for Reagan during his reelection year.
There’s some evidence Bush is benefiting from these and other positive economic developments, including an employment surge that swelled payrolls by 308,000 jobs in March.
Surveys by McInturff, the GOP pollster, have shown that the share of Americans who say the country is on the right track -- another key election indicator -- ticked up from the mid-30% range in March to a little more than 40% now. That’s not far below the level when incumbents can usually expect to win. Indeed, most recent surveys show Bush holding a small lead over Kerry.
But analysts in both parties see several obstacles Bush must overcome to achieve the sustained improvement in job approval that carried Nixon, Reagan and Clinton to reelections.
First is uncertainty about the employment picture. Despite March’s gains, the nation has lost more than 1.8 million jobs since Bush took office. The manufacturing sector has been hit especially hard, a big concern in the metal-bending states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Missouri that both sides consider most likely to decide a close election. If job growth does not remain strong, Bush probably won’t receive as much benefit from overall economic growth as previous presidents have, Abramowitz said.
Second, Bush faces growing unease about higher prices for gasoline and healthcare. Both ranked above unemployment and job losses to foreign competitors as an economic concern in a survey Greenberg released last week.
Third, Bush’s ability to expand his approval rating is limited by the electorate’s polarization about him. The gap between Republican and Democratic approval of Bush’s performance has reached an unprecedented 74 percentage points in Gallup polling.
That guarantees Bush a high floor of support, but may also consign him to a low ceiling, except in moments of intense national unity -- such as after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“He does seem to have a natural level of support right around 50%,” said Abramowitz, in a judgment echoed by strategists in each party.
Finally, and perhaps most important, the growing doubts about Iraq appear to be suppressing gains Bush might otherwise enjoy from the increasing optimism about the economy. “Say what you will about the economy, if every day American troops are dying, it’s hard for people to say, ‘Things are great,’ ” McInturff said.
Amid the intense focus on Iraq and the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, Kerry has been largely eclipsed in recent weeks.
But some Democratic operatives fear he has not responded effectively enough as Bush unleashed an early advertising blitz in 18 battleground states and regained a narrow lead in most national surveys. One senior Democratic strategist groused, “This is the worst president in history against the worst campaign in history.”
Operatives on both sides agree that Bush’s advertising has done some damage to Kerry, particularly by increasing concerns that he would raise taxes and by seeding an impression with some voters that he shifts his positions for political gain.
Yet impressions of a president’s challenger so early in the campaign have usually proven shallow and malleable. At this point in 1992, Clinton was in a much weaker position than Kerry. In an ABC/Washington Post survey in June 1992, a plurality of Americans said they would not describe Clinton as either a strong leader or honest and trustworthy; Kerry draws at least plurality support on both questions today.
History suggests the next important milestone for Kerry is the Democratic convention in late July. Successful challengers have effectively used their convention to wipe away many of the early doubts voters hold about them, with Clinton in 1992 perhaps the most dramatic example. All three of the successful challengers since 1956 led the incumbent in Gallup polls immediately after their own convention; the five who lost trailed.
But however Kerry presents himself to the electorate, most experts agree the race will pivot on attitudes toward Bush.
Greenberg, Clinton’s pollster in 1992, said voters were more receptive to reconsidering negative initial impressions of a challenger when they were dissatisfied with the incumbent. “When [Americans] go into an election wanting to vote for change, they can get past a whole lot,” he said.
Yet Americans appear split, once again, almost in half on whether they want to change direction. Polls show the nation divided into mirror image -- but roughly equal-sized -- coalitions that hold antithetical views on the role of government, how America should pursue its goals in the world and, perhaps above all, cultural issues such as abortion, gay rights and religion’s role in society.
So many voters appear immune to arguments from the other side that some pollsters say as few as 10% of Americans are up for grabs in this campaign. “It would take an enormous amount of information to convince Republicans that they made a wrong choice in supporting Bush, or Democrats they made a wrong choice in opposing him,” McInturff said. “Given the relative partisan parity in the country, that means this race is very difficult to move.”
It also means almost anything could decide the result -- from the fall’s presidential debates to the quality of each side’s organizations and the number of votes liberal independent candidate Ralph Nader attracts. It is the political equivalent of what scientists call the “butterfly effect” -- the axiom in chaos theory that a butterfly flapping its wings in South America can trigger a chain of events that changes the weather in Central Park.
Everything matters in a “butterfly effect” election, but big things are likely to matter most. With economic uncertainty persisting, the threat of terrorism enduring and soldiers dying daily in Iraq, the typical campaign trail quarrels between the candidates -- like 1988’s disputes between Bush’s father and Democrat Michael S. Dukakis over the Pledge of Allegiance and prison furloughs -- could lose much of their sting this year.
“The American people are in a very serious mood this year, and it’s the assessment that they come to between Labor Day and November about how things are going that will be the overwhelming factor [on election day],” said Galston, now a professor at the University of Maryland.
Bush and Kerry already clash virtually every day and direct the most expensive and expansive presidential campaign organizations ever. But with so many voters already locked in, and large events at home and abroad potentially influencing how the rest decide, the fate of these fierce combatants could hinge more on what they don’t control than on what they do.
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Looking toward November
A telling figure for presidential races featuring incumbents has been the president’s approval and disapproval rating in nationwide Gallup polls. Since 1956, incumbents winning a new term have been those with strong showings in this measurement at roughly this point in the election year.
*--* Year Approval/ Margin Election (poll date) Disapproval outcome Eisenhower 1956 (5/10) 69-17 +52 Won Johnson 1964 (5/6) 75-10 +65 Won Nixon 1972 (4/28) 54-37 +17 Won Ford 1976 (4/9) 48-41 +7 Lost Carter 1980 (5/2) 43-47 -4 Lost Reagan 1984 (5/3) 52-37 +13 Won H.W. Bush 1992 (5/7) 40-53 -13 Lost Clinton 1996 (5/12) 55-39 +16 Won Bush 2004 (4/18) 52-45 +7 ?
Here’s a look at other good signs, bad signs and equivocal ones for President Bush:
- Consumer confidence has moved closer to the levels under presidents who won reelection since 1956 than those who lost.
- Continued economic growth finally may be generating sustained job growth.
- Bush enjoys unqualified support from his political base, while Kerry faces the risk of independent Ralph Nader siphoning away liberal votes.
- Bush receives solid ratings as a strong, principled leader, while polls show his ads depicting Kerry as an opportunistic flip-flopper have had an impact.
- Bush still may become the first president since Herbert Hoover to suffer a net loss of jobs over his full term, with losses especially severe in high-wage manufacturing jobs.
- Increasing doubts about the situation in Iraq may be outweighing growing confidence about the economy.
- Bush scores nearly as poorly as his father in 1992 when voters are asked whether he understands the problems of people like them.
- Kerry has more money and a more favorable public image than Democrat Bill Clinton at this point in the 1992 campaign against President George H.W. Bush.
- The country’s intense partisan polarization means Bush’s rating isn’t likely to fall very far, but may not rise much either.
- Although Bush has regained the lead in most national surveys, three new polls show him and Kerry essentially tied in 17 battleground states both sides consider most likely to pick the next president, even after a massive Bush advertising blitz.
- Sense of optimism about the country’s direction is increasing in polls, but remains slightly below the level where an incumbent president is favored for reelection.
Source: Times research. Graphics reporting by Ronald Brownstein