Poll Results Portend a Negative Campaign

Listen: Mara Liasson's Report on the June 2004 NPR Poll

We still have more than four months to go to Election Day, but we already know this will be the longest, most expensive and possibly most negative campaign for president in U.S. history.

For a little historical comparison: It was not until August of 1992 that George H.W. Bush uttered the name Bill Clinton. And it was August of 1984 before Ronald Reagan uttered Walter Mondale. (Reagan was then asked "What do you think of Mondale’s charges?" and replied: "I think he should pay all of them.")

It's a well-worn cliche of politics to say that polls are just a "snapshot" of where the candidates stand at any given point in a campaign, and that the only poll that counts is on Election Day. But every campaign starts polling early, just the same. So do members of the news media who want their own data to analyze... and some new polling done for NPR by Republican Bill McInturff and Democrat Stan Greenberg offers some insights into the 2004 race.

This campaign has already seen ups and down for each candidate, but none of the ups has been very high and none of the downs very low. For a while in early spring, it seemed that President Bush's approval rating, though softening, would withstand months of bad news about Iraq. That included the cumulative blow from the 9-11 commission hearings, the books by former National Security Council terror expert Richard Clarke and journalist Bob Woodward and the steady diet of bomb blasts and other violence on TV. Moreover, the race did not look like a zero-sum game, or a seesaw, in which Democrat John Kerry would profit as Bush struggled. Indeed, Kerry seemed unable to turn Bush troubles to his advantage at all.

Then Abu Ghraib happened and the reaction to Iraqi woes seemed to reach a tipping point. The prison scandal really undermined Americans' view of themselves as the good guys. So it's not surprising that President Bush — whose political fortunes are ever more inextricably linked to events in Iraq — suffered during this period. But it was remarkable to see his support fall on issues across the board: not just on his handling of the war in Iraq, but on his overall job performance and the handling of the wider war on terror (long his strongest suit). Ironically, given the steadily improving economic news, Bush got his worst marks of all for his handling of the economy. The overall April-May trend showed Kerry finally gaining ground.

But most recently, we have had new and different evidence that events are driving the polls. Our latest survey results show Bush getting a small boost from better news in June. He benefited from the announcement of the new transitional government in Baghdad, the G8 summit, the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of D-Day and, most of all, the weeklong memorials to former President Ronald Reagan - Republican icon and role model for the current White House. Approval ratings for Bush were soon hovering around 50 percent again, and Bush once again tied Kerry in the head-to-head match up.

To be sure, it's not a comfortable place for an incumbent to be. Since polling became commonplace after World War II, no president has been re-elected with approval ratings below 50 percent. There's also the significant judgment of the "right-direction or wrong-track" number, the all-purpose political barometer that essentially asks: "How are we doing?" Right now, this measure still shows a majority of voters think the country is on the wrong track.

Political professionals will tell you it is possible for an incumbent to win a second term even if a majority of voters think the country is on the wrong track, but it's not pretty to watch. To do so requires that the incumbent's campaign completely obliterate the challenger as a credible alternative — and that's why the tenor of this campaign went negative in March, remains negative now and will continue in that vein right through the fall.

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