By Richard S. Dunham
You'd expect George W. Bush to be smiling these days. While Iraqis from Baghdad to Basra cheer as Saddam Hussein statues come tumbling down, polls show an increase in support at home. Among Americam voters, Bush's approval rating is back above 70%.
So why are so many Democrats also smiling -- and media pundits so dismissive? They remember that in the aftermath of the first Persian Gulf War, this President's father saw his popularity hit a modern record of 91% -- yet he was booted from office the next year because voters doubted his ability to get the economy back on track. They remember, too, that the current President Bush saw his job-approval ratings soar after September 11, only to watch them drop as the economy soured.
Polls, like markets, go up and down. But signs are emerging that the lead-up to the 2004 campaign may bear little resemblance to 1992. A string of recent surveys show shifts toward Bush in key swing-voting blocs such as moderates and conservative Democrats -- and among traditionally Democratic voting groups such as Hispanics, Jewish Americans, and even African-American men. Among U.S.-born Latinos, for example, an astonishing 75% back Bush's war posture, according to an Apr. 3-6 survey by the Pew Hispanic Center.
The challenge for this Republican President and national GOP strategists is to transform deep support for the war against Saddam into stronger support for the Commander-in-Chief among independent voters and Democratic-leaning citizens who disagree with much of Bush's domestic agenda.
The public shows continuing concern about the President's ability to turn around the sagging economy. But George W. may have an opportunity his father didn't have to gain an upper hand in his reelection campaign and keep the advantage through Election Day 2004. Here are few key findings from recent surveys:
Bush scores high on personal strengths. The President's image as the scandal-free "anti-Clinton" helped him immensely in the 2000 election. He's in even better position now: 80% of Americans call him a strong and decisive leader, 73% say he is honest and trustworthy, and 70% think he inspires confidence, according to an Apr. 5-6 Gallup Poll. Even among voters who disapprove of his policies, large majorities praise the President's personal characteristics.
Shades of Dad? No, more like Ronald Reagan, who won the backing of moderate-to-conservative Democrats and independents who disagreed with his conservative economic philosophy but liked the Gipper's personality.
Democrats are divided. Nearly half of all voters who identify themselves as Democrats who opposed the war in the beginning now say they've changed their minds, according to an Apr. 2-3 Los Angeles Times poll. Seven out of 10 rank-and-file Dems say they back Bush on the war, according to the poll. A major reason: The dire consequences predicted by invasion foes haven't come to pass.
This growing pro-war sentiment among Democratic partisans could have powerful political implications for 2004. Before the shooting, an overwhelming majority of Democrats said they would vote for a generic Democrat against Bush no matter what. But according to an Ipsos Public Affairs/Cook Political Report Poll conducted between Mar. 18 and Apr. 3, 14% of Dems said they would definitely vote for Bush, and an additional 24% said they might. (Just 5% of Republicans have abandoned Bush, the poll indicated.) One glimmer of optimism for Democrats: Only 25% of Democrats approve of Bush's economic record, Ipsos found.
Bush appeals to the young and old alike. Before the war, the President polled poorly among the youngest and oldest voters. That's reversed now. The World War II generation and the under-30 crowd are now the most supportive of the current conflict, with aging baby boomers who remember Vietnam expressing the most concern. Younger voters have been among the most unpredictable voting blocs in recent elections.
With protecting national security and fighting terrorism now central to the national debate, issues that Democrats have used to appeal to young voters (abortion rights) and to seniors (Social Security) don't have quite the resonance they once had. Bush, like Reagan before him, has an opportunity for a generational squeeze play, attracting strong support from both Gen X and the Geritol crowd.
The gender gap is back. According to a survey from The Los Angeles Times, the war has made men far more optimistic than women about the direction of the country: 66% of men --but just 49% of women -- now say the country is on the right track. Male support for the President has skyrocketed to 75%, while women are slightly less enthusiastic about Bush (62% approve). And nearly two-thirds of antiwar Americans are women.
This is a double-edged dynamic. While White House political operatives have to be ecstatic about the President's newfound strength among twentysomething and sixtysomething men, they'll need to redouble their efforts to appeal to women who are conflicted about Bush's hawkishness and looming domestic spending cuts. He'll have to win back working moms, a voting bloc that favored him in 2000.
Independents remain up for grabs. According to The Los Angeles Times, 73% of those who consider themselves neither Democrat nor Republican support the attack on Iraq. Still, Ipsos found that just 39% of these independents approve of the President's domestic policies, and only 30% say they'll definitely vote to reelect Bush. (A larger number -- 34% -- say they'll definitely vote for someone else.)
Here's a big challenge for the White House. Polls show that the economy is a key factor for independent voters. If Bush doesn't change this dynamic, it could be a close reelection contest in '04.
President Bush's father learned the hard way that postwar political capital is ephemeral. Wartime popularity can disappear quickly if voters feel an incumbent isn't doing the postwar job that they expect. Advisers to the second Bush say they're determined not to let that happen and will be proactive about dealing with the nation's economic malaise.
No question, Bush still faces a hard run for reelection. But if he can hold on to even a fraction of his newfound backers, the Democrats will have a harder time toppling Saddam's toppler than Bill Clinton had ousting the President who forced Saddam out of Kuwait 12 years ago.
Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online