Poll Analysis: Presidential Hopefuls Face Deeply Divided Electorate

Times Poll Director

According to a new Los Angeles Times poll, the country is as divided as it was in the 2000 election when Republican George W. Bush barely beat Democratic candidate Al Gore. The country is still divided along partisanship, gender and race lines and issues debating the moral and cultural values of the country. The poll also shows that President Bush, on one hand, is likeable with strong marks for his leadership ability and honesty. And on the other hand, it shows that Americans dislike his policies and a majority don’t think he cares about people like themselves, while favoring the rich.

Two things that will take center stage over the course of the presidential campaign will be the economy and the reconstruction of Iraq. The public is of two minds about the health of the nation’s economy. Americans feel the president has made the country weaker by his policies and the country is not as well off as before Bush took office, but they also feel that in the next six months, the economy will be getting better. The economy is more on the public’s mind than rooting out terrorism or even the ongoing fighting in Iraq. They believe the economy should be the highest priority that the Bush administration should be concentrating on. Also, the public believes the country is seriously off on the wrong track, a turnaround from where Americans thought the country was heading seven months ago when the question was asked. Perhaps because of this and the belief that the war in Iraq is not going as planned and not worth the cost of lives and the money being poured into that country, President Bush’s ratings, although still positive, have declined sharply. When asked if they were more likely to support Bush or the Democratic nominee in 2004, 38% of voters would vote for the president, while 42% of them would vote for a Democratic candidate.

President Bush

A majority of Americans approve of the way George W. Bush is handling his job as president (54%), while a growing number disapprove, 41%. Since the Times Poll asked this question in April, the president’s approval rating declined by 14 points, while his negative rating climbed 13 points.

For many Americans, liking a president has different elements to it. One is liking the man, while the other is liking his policies. The Times Poll asked a four-way question getting at both of these elements. Interestingly, it shows that once feelings about personally liking the president are measured separately, more respondents say they dislike the president’s policies. More than two thirds of those surveyed say that they like Bush as a person, while 27% dislike him; 46% like Bush’s policies while almost half dislike them. There is a gender gap in how men and women perceive the president and his policies — roughly half of men interviewed like Bush’s policies while almost the same share of women dislike them. In a February Times poll, more Americans liked Bush personally (76%) as well as liked his policies (55%).

 Now Feb
Like Bush/like his policies 40% 51%
Like Bush/dislike his policies 28% 26%
Dislike Bush/like policies 6% 4%
Dislike Bush/dislike policies 20% 17%
Don’t know 6% 3%

The president is receiving negative ratings in his handling of the Iraqi situation and economy — both issues that are uppermost in the minds of Americans. Back in an April Times poll, almost three-quarters of all respondents approved of the way he was handling the situation in Iraq, while a quarter disapproved. In the current survey, a majority of those surveyed disapprove (51%) of his handling the Iraqi situation (including 36% who disapprove strongly), while now just 45% approve. Respondents who described themselves as independents are somewhat divided as to how they feel about the president’s job performance in Iraq — 47% approve, 50% disapprove.

Personal attributes: Another way to judge how people view the president is through personal attributes — the perception of his leadership ability, where he wants to lead the country, is he honest and trustworthy, does he understand the problems of average Americans and is he concerned with all Americans equally. President Bush gets mixed grades.

First, the public is divided as to whether Bush has a good idea where he wants to lead the country (45% say yes he has a good idea vs. 49% say no, he doesn’t have a good idea). In March 2001, two months after Bush was sworn in as president the Times Poll asked this question and more Americans were optimistic about the new president and his goals. Almost three-fifths (56%) of respondents believed the president had a good idea where he wanted to lead the country at that time, only a third didn’t think that. A majority of the public (51%) in the current survey don’t think he understands the problems of people like themselves, while 42% think he does; 51% believe that he cares more about rich people than he does about poor or middle income. However, 37% believe he cares about all income groups equally.

But, two personal attributes that are important for a president to have are leadership ability and honesty. And the president has high marks in these two categories. More than three out of five surveyed (61%) say that Bush is a strong leader, while almost a third don’t feel that way. (In February 2003, a Times poll showed that 71% thought he was a strong leader.) Nearly three out of five respondents (56%) think he is honest and trustworthy, while a third don’t believe he has that attribute.

Job Ratings: Half of those surveyed disapprove of the way President Bush is handling the economy and 44% approve. In April, it was the reverse — 55% approved of the president handling this issue, while 39% disapproved. Women today are more disapproving than men. The public is also disapproving of the way Bush is handling the health care issue (50%). About three in 10 of those surveyed approved. Yet, nearly three out of five respondents approve of the way the president is handling the war on terrorism. Slightly more than a third disapprove. Men and women, independents and moderates also approve of his handling this issue.

The war in Iraq is not going as well as expected and depending on the number of casualties the American military sustain, the Bush administration may be in for some rocky times with the American people. The presidential election is still a year away and lots of things could change the dynamics of the campaigns, but this issue, along with the economy, are the ones to watch during the coming year. Three out of five respondents think the economy and jobs should get the highest priority from the Bush administration when given three choices including rooting out terrorism and continuing with the reconstruction of Iraq. Less than three in 10 said getting rid of terrorism and just 8% cited Iraqi reconstruction.

Clearly, the economy and the war in Iraq are vulnerable issues for President Bush. In the last month the nation has seen the economy recover slightly and there are indicators that the economy is turning around. But will that help unemployment? Will that help the public’s perception of the economy?


That leads to the economic issues facing the country since President Bush took office almost three years ago. The public is divided over whether the economy is doing well or badly. Half of Americans think the nation’s economy is doing well, while 49% think it is doing badly. There is a gender gap on this issue. Men think the economy is doing well (54%), while women think the opposite (54%). Majorities of independents (52%) and moderates (59%) think the economy is doing badly, as do respondents with household incomes of less than $20,000. One good sign for the president and his administration is that just 15% of all Americans expect the nation’s economy six months from now to be worse than it is today, while more than a third (35%) think it will get better.

Still another indicator that isn’t as heartening for the president is the fact that 54% of those surveyed believe that the country is not as well off financially since Bush became president, compared to 18% who think the country is better off financially and a quarter believe the country is in the same financial shape as when he took office. However, a rosier picture is seen in terms of how the respondents feel about their own financial situation since Bush took office almost three years ago. Half think they are in the same financial shape as when the president took office, while 22% say they are better off financially and 27% are not as well off financially. The wealthiest Americans — those with household incomes of more than $100,000 — say they are better off financially since Bush became president, 41%, (compared to 9% of respondents with household incomes less than $20,000 and 21% of those with household earnings of $20,000 to $40,000.)

Among those who say they are better off financially, 38% say it is a result of Bush’s economic policies (including 16% who say it is a direct result and 21% who say his policies are partly responsible). Almost three-fifths (56%) believe that they are better off for some other reason than Bush’s economic policies. On the other hand, among those who say they are not as well off financially, 61% say it is a result of Bush’s economic policies (including 34% who say it is a direct result and 27% who believe his policies are only partly responsible).

Another sign the economy could play a big role in the upcoming election is whether people perceive Bush’s policies have made the country stronger or weaker economically. Right now, 43% believe his economic policies made the country weaker. Just a quarter say it made the country stronger and about another quarter believe his policies had no effect on the country. Older men and women (45 years of age and older) say the country is weaker economically because of Bush’s policies (49% and 56% respectively), as do women in college (54%).

Tax Cuts/Budget Deficit: When respondents were asked who or what was to blame for the country moving from a $200 billion surplus to a $375 billion budget deficit, more responded that it was the aftermath of September 11 (36%) and the Iraq war (26%) than President Bush’s economic policies (22%), although the president does get some of the blame.

And more respondents say that in order to stimulate the nation’s economy, an economic agenda focused on reducing the federal deficit and paying down the debt was the more effective way (50%) than returning money to taxpayers through tax cuts (37%). This is a turnaround from when the poll asked the question in September 2002; then 45% thought tax cuts were the way to stimulate the economy and 44% thought the way to go was reducing the deficit and paying down the debt. The public feels the same way about focusing the agenda on spending for improvements to the country’s infrastructure such as roads, bridges and schools as the way to effectively stimulate the economy (58%) rather than tax cuts (34%). In February 2003, the Times Poll found that 47% preferred improvements to the infrastructure of the nation and 43% thought tax cuts were the effective way to stimulate the economy.

Presidential Election

Voters are somewhat divided as to whether they think President Bush deserves to be reelected for a second term of office. Forty-two percent of voters say that Bush deserves to be reelected, while 46% say he doesn’t. Nearly half of male voters (46%) think he deserves another four years, while slightly more women voters (51%) disagree. About a quarter of Democratic primary voters (which includes registered Democrats, and in some states, independents and other voters who are permitted to vote in the Democratic primary or caucus in their state) say that the president deserves to reelected.

Among those voters who think Bush deserves reelection, they cite: he’s done a good job, give him a chance to finish what he started and Bush is a strong leader. Among those voters who don’t think Bush deserves another four years as president, mention: the Iraq war and that the military has yet to find weapons of mass destruction, he’s done a poor job as president, and they disagree with him on his domestic and foreign policies.

Bush vs. generic Democrat: In a mock horse race putting President Bush against a generic Democratic candidate — the Democrat would garner 42% of the vote and Bush would receive support from 38% of the voters. In February 1992, the 41st president, President George H. W. Bush received similar results as reported in a Times poll — 38% of voters said they would vote for the incumbent president, while 42% would vote for a Democratic candidate. Ten months later Bill Clinton would defeat the incumbent president.

There is a gender gap as there has been in many of the questions rating President Bush. More than two-fifths (44%) of male voters said they would vote for Bush, while nearly half of women voters would vote for the Democratic candidate. This gap includes men and women voters by age, education and party affiliation. The elderly voters (65 and over) are more inclined to vote for the Democratic candidate than the incumbent Bush (44% vs. 34%), as are the college educated voters compared to those with less education (who are divided over who they would vote for). Nearly three out of five voters whose household earnings are more than $100,000 would vote for Bush, while the less wealthy groups (less than $40,000) are backing a Democrat. Those voters earning between $60,000 and $100,000 are also supporting a Democratic candidate.

Voters who describe themselves as liberal are overwhelmingly for a Democratic candidate (73%), while the conservative voters, although they support Bush, are doing so less enthusiastically than the liberal voters are for a Democratic candidate. Fifty-eight percent of conservative voters would support Bush, but 12% said they aren’t sure who they would vote for and another 6% said it depends on the candidate.

Voters by party affiliation and political ideology
 Bush Democrat
Liberal Democrats 6% 87%
Non-liberal Democrats 11% 70%
Non-conservative independents 21% 52%
Conservative independents 53% 15%
Non-conservative Republican 80% 11%
Conservative Republicans 84% 7%

The country is divided by their feelings over the economy, but also by issues affecting themselves and the country. The 2000 election showed an electorate evenly split and this poll clearly shows that the polarization has not withered. For instance, President Bush gets the support of voters who believe that there should be less gun control, abortions should be illegal, favor the ban on partial birth abortions, oppose civil unions between gay partners and oppose gay marriages. Not surprising, the reverse is true for a Democratic candidate. He or she receives the support of voters who want stricter gun control, favor abortion rights, oppose the ban on partial birth abortions, support civil unions between gay partners and support gay marriages. Nearly half of the voters who drink wine with their dinner are behind a Democratic candidate and almost three-fifths (56%) of voters who drink beer are solidly behind Bush. (The wine drinkers are more socioeconomically upscale as the beer drinkers are more economically downscale.) Nearly half of the voters who attend religious services at least weekly are backing President Bush, while those voters who seldom or rarely go to services are supporting a Democratic candidate.

Voters living on the East Coast say they would vote for a Democratic candidate, while voters living in the Midwest, South and West Coast are split.

Democratic Primary /Caucus Voters
Just about half of the Democratic primary/caucus voters (50%) say that they have been following the upcoming presidential election in 2004 closely. The Democratic primary voters were asked: If the election were being held today, and these were the candidates, for whom would you vote:
Former Vermont governor Howard Dean 12%
Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman 11%
Retired general Wesley Clark 11%
Missouri Congressman Dick Gephardt 10%
Massachusetts Senator John Kerry 7%
Former Illinois Senator Carol Moseley Braun 4%
North Carolina Senator John Edwards 3%
Reverend Al Sharpton 3%
Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich 1%
Someone Else 1%
Don’t know 37%

The Democratic voters’ second choice would be: Dean at 18%, Clark at 18%, Kerry at 14%, Gephardt at 13%, Lieberman at 12%, Edwards at 5%, Kucinich, Moseley Braun and Sharpton each at 3%. Three percent would choose another candidate and 8% were unsure.

Two thirds of the Democratic primary voters say that when deciding on a candidate in 2004, they would choose a candidate that they agree with most on the issues, rather than choosing a candidate that could beat President Bush (26%). This opinion is decidedly shared by all demographic groups. It also seems the decision by Dean and Kerry to decline matching funds did not have an affect one way or the other on how voters would consider voting.

Nearly half of Democratic primary voters (46%) would prefer a Democratic candidate who opposed the war in Iraq instead of a candidate who favored the war (39%). A quarter say they would still vote for a candidate who agreed with them on most issues, but disagreed with their position on the war in Iraq, while a fifth would not vote for a candidate who disagreed with their position on the war in Iraq even if they agreed with them on most issues and 47% say it would not make a difference either way.

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. Democratic voters are defined as registered Democrats and, in some states, independents and other voters who are permitted to vote in the Democratic primary or caucus in their respective state. 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.