Democrats Energized, Independents Swayed

Americans continue to have mixed views about the effectiveness of the primary process as the best means of selecting nominees, but it is clear that the 2004 primaries have engaged and energized voters, particularly Democrats and independents. Perceptions of the quality of the Democratic field of candidates, as well as the outlook for the party in November, have shifted notably from a month ago, and public attention to the campaign has risen appreciably.

While Republicans remain steadfast in their support for the president, the Democratic primaries have unified Democrats as they approach the general election, and swayed many political independents. In early January, Bush led Kerry by 52%-41% in a hypothetical match-up among registered voters. Today, voters are divided (47%-47%).

This reflects a significantly more unified Democratic Party (Democratic support for Kerry rose from 77% in January to 86% today in a match-up vs. Bush). It also represents a sizable shift in the views of independents, who favored Bush over Kerry a month ago (by a 52% to 37% margin), and Kerry over Bush today (by a 51% to 41% margin).

The primaries have also helped the Democratic Party in general. While favorable ratings of the Democratic Party have risen only slightly since last June (from 54% to 58%), this increase has come entirely among independents. Last June, political independents rated the Democratic and Republican Parties about equally (55% favorable for the former, 54% for the latter). Today, 65% of independents rate the Democratic Party favorably, compared with 50% who give the Republican Party a positive rating.

On the other hand, positive views of Democratic leaders in Congress have declined over the past two years. Just 38% approve of their job performance, while 42% disapprove. That is significantly worse than two years ago; in June 2002, a 47% plurality approved of the job Democratic congressional leaders were doing, while 36% disapproved.

Ratings for Republican congressional leaders also have declined. In January 2003, 48% expressed a positive view of the job performance of Republican leaders, while 37% disapproved. Today, opinion is split (41% positive, 42% negative).

Campaign Interest and Awareness

The percent of Americans following news about the Democratic primary race very closely rose from 16% a month ago to 29% today. This rise in interest has occurred among Democrats (from 24% to 42%), independents (from 13% to 26%) and even Republicans (from 12% to 22%).

This is consistent with the pattern in previous elections. In each of the past three election cycles, public interest in the campaign has spiked following early results in Iowa, New Hampshire, and other primary states.

Bush’s Rough Month

Bush’s approval rating now stands at 48%, with 44% disapproving. Prior to this point, his lowest rating had been 50%, in August 2001 just before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and again in November 2003, just before the capture of Saddam Hussein.

His current approval rating represents an eight-point drop since mid-January. The decline has come across the board demographically, with most groups in the population expressing less approval now than a month ago. Larger than average declines were seen among white mainline Protestants (12 points) and white Catholics (11 points), among Democrats (11 points), and among residents of rural areas (16 points).

Bush’s personal ratings have also declined. In early January, Gallup found 65% viewing the president favorably and only 35% with an unfavorable opinion. Currently, 53% have a positive opinion of the president, with 44% expressing a negative opinion. A quarter of Americans have a very unfavorable opinion of the president, which is more than double the percentage who had a strongly negative view of Bush last April (11%).

Among Democrats, 51% have a very unfavorable opinion (and another 27% are somewhat unfavorable). By contrast, 48% of Republicans have a very favorable opinion (with 46% somewhat favorable). The level of polarization in the president’s favorability exceeds that for President Clinton in September 1998, during the impeachment battle. Clinton was viewed very unfavorably by 46% of Republicans, and very favorably by 32% of Democrats.

Bush ‘One-Worders’ More Negative

When asked for a one-word impression of George W. Bush, respondents divided evenly between those who gave a positive word and those who gave a negative word (36% each), while 13% offered a neutral description, and 15% said they could not come up with a word. Four years ago, at the conclusion of the bitter nominating fight between Bush and Senator John McCain, one-word descriptions of Bush were similarly divided. But in May 2003, favorable one-word descriptions of the president outnumbered unfavorable words by a margin of nearly two to one (52% to 27%).

One-word descriptions provided by people who approve of the president’s job performance tend to stress Bush’s honesty, leadership qualities, and strength ­ a mix very similar to that seen in May 2003. Several people mentioned his Christian faith and his patriotism. Other words mentioned by several people included confident, determined, dedicated, character, honorable, moral, reliable, sincere and gutsy.

Negative traits commonly attributed to Bush include dishonesty, arrogance, incompetence, and lack of knowledge. Lying and dishonesty, in particular, are more commonly mentioned now than last May.

Images of Kerry and Edwards Generally Positive

Public views of Democratic contenders John Kerry and John Edwards are generally positive, with favorable opinions outnumbering unfavorable opinions by margins of about two-to-one. Overall, 58% of Americans have a positive view of Kerry, with 28% negative and 14% unable to rate him. Among only those who are familiar enough with Kerry to rate him, two-thirds feel favorably, one-third unfavorably.

Edwards still is not familiar to a sizable minority of Americans ­ 34% have not heard of him or could not rate him. Of those familiar with the North Carolina senator, 63% view him favorably, 37% unfavorably.

Although Edwards has won only one primary thus far, his strong performance in several states ­ most recently, in the Wisconsin primary ­ has been fueled in part by support from independents and even Republicans. Nationally, Edwards has a more positive image than Kerry among Republicans (52% vs. 36%).

But Kerry remains more popular among Democrats and independents than Edwards, garnering nearly unanimous favorable opinion among Democrats who can rate him (91%) and 71% among independents who express an opinion. By contrast, Edwards gets a 78% favorable rating among Democrats who can rate, and 62% among independents.

One-Word Descriptions of Kerry

When asked for a single word that comes to mind about John Kerry, most voters (78%) are able to volunteer a description, while just 22% cannot. This compares favorably with awareness of Al Gore in March 2000, near the end of the last primary season, when 21% did not volunteer a word to characterize Gore. At that point, however, Gore had served as vice president for more than seven years. Just as many (21%) had nothing to say about George W. Bush in March 2000.

Overall, a 38% plurality mentioned a positive word to describe Kerry ­ honest, good, qualified, intelligent and knowledgeable are among the most common favorable words. In March 2000, only 26% offered a positive word about Gore. In the current poll, 19% volunteer a negative word about Kerry, most frequently that he is phony, arrogant, or a liar.

Evaluating the Primary Process

Despite the favorable impact the primaries have had on Democrats and independents, the public’s overall evaluation of the primary process remains mixed. Just four-in-ten Americans feel that the presidential primaries so far have been a good way of determining the best qualified nominees, while slightly more (46%) think they have not been. This evaluation of the process in general is comparable to how the public viewed the 2000, 1996 and 1980 primaries, but significantly better than public ratings of the primaries in 1992, when Clinton scandals dominated the news. In recent years, only the 1988 primaries were viewed positively by a majo
rity of Americans.

Negative campaigning and the amount of money in the political process are the enduring concerns of Americans as they think about the election process more generally. Roughly six-in-ten say each of these practices bother them very much (61%, 59%).

That is almost identical to measures taken four and eight years ago during the early stages of the previous two presidential campaigns. Somewhat fewer people (44%) say they are very bothered by what politicians say to get elected, and smaller minorities express a great deal of concern about political advertising on television (29%) or the way the news covers the campaigns (13%).

Coverage OK, But Media Seen as Too Influential

As in past elections, most Americans are satisfied with the overall amount and quality of media coverage of the primaries. But Americans express a growing concern about the amount of influence the press has on which candidates become the presidential nominees.

In 1988, 47% said the media had too much influence on the outcome of the primaries, a figure which rose to 58% in 1992, when many were critical of the way the press handled scandals related to Arkansas governor Bill Clinton. Today, 63% say the press has too much influence on who wins in the primaries.

But relatively few criticize the press for paying too little (8%) or too much (28%) attention to the primary races, while 61% feel the amount of coverage is about right. And most say the coverage has been excellent (11%) or good (43%). Republicans and Democrats give equally favorable ratings to the quality of the coverage, though Republicans are twice as likely as Democrats to think the amount of attention paid to the process has been excessive (34% vs. 18% say there has been “too much” coverage).

Press Too Tough on Bush?

While the predominant view is that the press has been fair to Kerry and Bush over the past few months, a significant minority ­ mostly Republicans ­ believe that news organizations have been too tough on the president over the past two months.

Two-thirds of Americans (67%) say the press has been fair in its treatment of Kerry, almost exactly the same evaluation of press treatment of both Gore and Bush at roughly the same point in their campaigns four years ago. Among the minority who are critical of the way the press has covered Kerry, far more say journalists have been too easy on him (18%) than too tough (5%). Even among Kerry supporters, very few (7%) see the press as overly critical of their candidate.

Perceptions of how the press has treated the president are somewhat different. While about half (49%) say the press has been fair in its coverage of Bush over the past few months, 27% say coverage has been too tough. This is the prevailing view among Republicans and Bush supporters, roughly half of whom say media coverage has been too critical recently. Democrats, not surprisingly, continue to feel that press coverage of the president has been either fair (57%) or too easy on him (30%).

Assessing Dean’s Downfall

The public generally takes a skeptical view of news organizations, but Americans do not blame the media for the problems that former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean encountered in his race for the nomination.

About half (49%) say the press has been fair in its treatment of Dean, though among press critics, more say coverage of Dean has been too tough (24%) than say it has been too easy (11%). But when asked directly, 57% say Dean’s own actions and views were more responsible for his failing campaign; just 22% blamed the way the press has covered him. This is the majority view across party lines.

Only among the minority who say that at some point in the presidential campaign they wanted Dean to win the Democratic nomination (23% of the public ) does a significant number blame the press for Dean’s downfall. But even among current and former supporters, as many blame Dean for his campaign’s problems (45%) as the press (41%).

Budget Deficit: Awareness, Little Political Impact

While it is still early in the 2004 election cycle, Democratic candidates have largely failed to convince Americans that the growing budget deficit was caused by the president’s tax cuts. In the public’s eye, the war in Iraq is the overwhelming cause of the current budget problems, and secondarily the costs of homeland defense.

Americans are aware of the deficit problem. Overall, 82% of Americans correctly say that the federal government is currently spending more money than it is taking in, and 79% know that the current budget deficit is larger than it was four years ago. This is starkly different from four years ago when, despite a budget surplus, just as many believed the government was running a deficit as said it was in surplus. The current public perceptions are more in line with the actual budgetary situation than then, and are virtually identical to the public’s awareness of the budget situation in 1989, when deficits also loomed large. Democrats, Republicans and independents are all equally aware of the current budget situation.

By an overwhelming margin, the public attributes the deficit primarily to the war in Iraq. Fully 73% say Iraq has added a great deal to the deficit, compared with 46% who cite the costs of homeland defense, 21% who cite lower revenue as a result of recent tax cuts, and just 8% who cite increased domestic spending.

Nearly all (92%) say the war in Iraq has had at least some impact on the deficit. By comparison, 58% see the tax cuts as even somewhat related to the deficit, and only a minority (39%) makes any connection between the deficit and domestic spending. Asked to identify which of these factors has had the single greatest effect on the federal budget deficit, 61% cite Iraq. Fewer than one-in-ten choose any of the other three options.

Despite their disagreements over the war and tax cuts, Republicans and Democrats largely agree on the causes of the current budget situation. Two-thirds of Republicans and 79% of Democrats say the war in Iraq has contributed a great deal to the deficit. And majorities in both parties cite the war as the single biggest cause of the budget shortfall.

Democrats are roughly three times more likely than Republicans (32% vs. 11%) to say that decreased revenue as a result of recent tax cuts had a great deal of impact on the deficit. But even among the most liberal Democrats ­ and among those who plan to vote against Bush in November ­ the tax cuts are mentioned much less often than Iraq or homeland defense as the major budget busters. Most Democrats (62%) do say the tax cuts have had at least some impact on the size of the deficit, though 30% think it has not. Among Republicans, 53% say the tax cuts have had at least some effect on the deficit, compared with 40% who believe they have had little or no effect on the budget situation.

War Support Slips

Public backing of the decision to use military force in Iraq has dipped to its lowest point since the war began. Currently, 56% say taking military action in Iraq was the right decision, down from 65% a month ago, and a previous low of 60% last October. The proportion saying it was the “wrong decision” to take military action has risen to 39% from 30% a month ago.

Most Americans remain at least fairly optimistic about how well the U.S. military effort in Iraq is going. After a boost of confidence following the capture of Saddam Hussein in December, evaluations of the state of affairs have returned to roughly where they were in the summer and fall of last year.

Currently, 17% say things are going very well in Iraq, 46% see things going fairly well, and a third say the effort is going not too well (23%) or not at all well (11%).

Whether recent declines in support for the war in Iraq reflect recent reports about the absence of weapons of mass destruction or just the fading memory of Saddam’s capture is difficult to know, but there is no doubt that the WMD story is of far greater interest to war opponents than war supporters. Regardless of their position on the war, most Americans have been following recent reports that no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq very (37%) or fairly (39%) closely. While half of war opponents have followed this very closely ­ making it the single biggest news story of the month for war opponents ­ only three-in-ten war supporters say it has been a major focus of their attention.

Despite concerns about the justifications for war, most Americans continue to believe that the war in Iraq has made America and the world a safer place. By a 55% to 32% margin, more say the war in Iraq has helped, not hurt, the war on terrorism. And on a separate form of the survey respondents were asked if the war has or has not contributed to the long-term security of the United States. By a 56% to 38% margin most say it has.

Not surprisingly, voters who plan to support Bush in November are overwhelmingly of the view that Iraq has made the nation safer, while those who support Kerry disagree. But among those who say they have not made up their minds yet (about 10% of voters), opinion on this issue is evenly divided, with just as many saying the war in Iraq has made America and the world safer as saying it has not.

Partisans Look at Mass., Texas

Attitudes toward the home states of the likely presidential candidates reflect a good deal of partisanship. Texas is almost universally favored by Republicans (94%), but Democrats and many independents are far less positive (62% of Democrats, 70% of independents). The 32-point partisan gap in the favorable rating for Texas is the largest for any state tested.

Massachusetts also evokes a highly partisan reaction, with 85% of Democrats and just 64% of Republicans expressing a positive opinion of the Bay State. There is a comparable ideological division in the views of both Texas and Massachusetts, with conservatives showing greater fondness for the former and liberals holding more favorable opinions of Massachusetts.

The partisan divide in views of California is almost as large as the gap for Massachusetts (with Democrats and liberals more favorable). Georgia and Florida get better ratings from Republicans, while Illinois is viewed somewhat more favorably by Democrats. There is virtually no partisan split in opinions of other states tested: New York, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Michigan.

Iraq Leads News Interest

News of the situation in Iraq continues to be the top story in terms of public interest. That has been the case in every monthly news interest index since October 2002, when reports on the sniper shootings near Washington, D.C. led the news interest index.

A second Iraq-related story ­ reports that no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq ­ also drew broad interest (37% very closely). Nearly half of Democrats (48%) say they tracked this story very closely, compared with 37% of independents and 29% of Republicans.

Public interest in news of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination has increased dramatically ­ from 16% following very closely in January to 29% in the current survey. As expected, there also are sizable political differences in attention to the primary contest: 42% of Democrats followed this story very closely, compared with 26% of independents and 22% of Republicans.

Roughly a quarter of Americans (26%) say they paid very close attention to the debate about allowing gays and lesbians to marry. While interest in this story has increased since last summer, it still lags far behind public attention to the controversy over President Clinton’s efforts to end the ban on gays in the military, which erupted shortly after he took office in 1993.

Just 22% of Americans say they paid very close attention to the controversy over Janet Jackson’s performance during the Super Bowl halftime show, which drew extensive news coverage. African-Americans were far more likely than whites to track this controversy very closely (36% vs. 21%).

Another widely-covered story ­ questions about President Bush’s service in the National Guard during the Vietnam War ­ also attracted close attention from about one-in-five Americans (19%). Significantly, interest in this story was nearly the same among Republicans as among Democrats (19%, 21%). But 37% of male veterans tracked this story very closely. There was very little public interest in news that the poison Ricin was found in a Senate office building. Only about one-in-ten Americans (12%) followed this news very closely.