Introduction and Summary

Americans view Howard Dean as more liberal than the other leading Democratic candidates and far more liberal than the way they see themselves. For his part, President Bush is seen as more conservative than the average person. Bush is somewhat further from the ideological self-perception of the average American than are several leading Democratic candidates, like Wesley Clark, Richard Gephardt and John Kerry. Ideologically, Dean is seen as further from the average American than Bush, but that is largely due to Dean’s extremely liberal image among Republicans. Independents rate both Dean and Bush as equally far from their own ideological self-assessments.

The latest Pew Research Center national survey, conducted Jan. 6-11 among 1,503 adults, finds the president starting the election year in a strong position. Among registered voters, he holds a 10-point lead (48%-38%) over a generic Democratic opponent. Bush’s approval rating stands at 56% and an increasing percentage of voters think he will prevail in November. Fully six-in-ten voters (61%) say that today, compared with 47% who said that in September. Bush’s overall legacy also is seen positively; by 49%-36%, Americans think Bush’s accomplishments will outweigh his failures.

The public clearly places Bush to the right of the ideological spectrum. On an ideological scale ranging from 1-6 (where 1 is the most conservative and 6 is the most liberal), those who can rate the president give him an average score of 2.7. Respondents rate their own ideological leanings as close to the center; the midpoint on the 1-6 scale is 3.5 and the public’s rating, on average, is 3.3. For the most part, the leading Democratic candidates are closer ideologically to the public’s average than is Bush. But Dean is the exception ­ his overall rating of 4.2 places him decidedly to the left.

In general, ideological polarization has grown when compared with a comparable point in the 2000 campaign ­ more Democrats rate themselves as liberals and there has been a smaller shift to the right among Republicans. In that regard, while Dean is seen as much more liberal than the public, on average, likely Democratic primary voters rate themselves ideologically as much closer to the former Vermont governor than the other leading Democratic candidates.

The survey shows that the recent stream of good economic news is having an impact on how people view the overall economy, though concerns over jobs have not eased. A 45% plurality of Americans believes the economy is now in recovery and economic perceptions are much brighter than they were in January 1992, when Bush’s father was at a similar point in his unsuccessful reelection bid.

However, the positive economic data has failed to dramatically change the views of Americans about the availability of jobs in their own communities. Fewer than three-in-ten (27%) say jobs are plentiful, only a slight increase since October (24%). In addition, somewhat more people rate strengthening the economy as a top policy priority for the president and Congress than did so last year at this time.

In fact, about as many now place top priority on strengthening the economy (79%) as on protecting the country against future terrorist attacks (78%). In each of the last two January surveys, defending against terrorism was the leading public priority. Public imperatives on several other issues also have changed significantly. Half of the public (51%) now views reducing the budget deficit as a top priority, up from 40% last year. There also has been a sharp rise in the number who place great importance on providing health insurance to the uninsured (54% now, 45% last year). The environment (up 10 points) and education (nine points) also have grown in importance since last January.

As the president prepares for his State of the Union speech on Jan. 20, there has been a notable decline in the number of Americans who regard the address as more important than those of previous years. In 2002, four months after the Sept. 11 attacks, 54% said that year’s State of the Union was more important than those of past years; last year, amid prospects of war with Iraq, 52% expressed that view. But today just 34% believe this year’s State of the Union is more important than those of recent years, and there are no major political or demographic differences on that question.

The survey shows that the pictures sent back from Mars by a NASA spacecraft attracted huge interest ­ two-thirds of Americans (66%) say they have seen the Mars pictures. But far fewer said they actually paid close attention to news reports on the landing of the Mars spacecraft. Just 19% paid very close attention to reports on the Mars mission, which places that story far behind the situation in Iraq (48%) and economic news (37%) in terms of public interest.

In that regard, Bush’s call for dramatically expanding the space program has not resonated with the public. Just one-in-ten rate that as a top policy priority ­ by far the lowest rating for any of 22 agenda items tested. In fact, more than twice as many Americans attach high priority to the next lowest rated policy tested ­ passing a constitution amendment banning gay marriages (22%) ­ as say that about expanding the space program (10%).