Introduction and Summary

So far, the presidential primary campaign has been very good for the Democratic Party. Public interest in the race has been relatively high. Nearly half of Americans (45%) have a positive overall impression of the Democratic field, up from 31% just a month ago. And while a slim majority of the public continues to believe that President Bush will win the general election, there also has been a sharp rise in the percentage who feel a Democratic candidate will prevail in November ­ from 21% in January to 36% in the current survey.

Democrats themselves have become much more engaged, and confident, since the start of their party’s primary campaign, but the shift has been notable among independents as well. In January, 47% of Democrats and just 27% of independents gave positive ratings to the Party’s field. Currently, 61% of Democrats and 44% of independents express a positive opinion of the Democratic candidates. And significantly more Democrats and independents predict Democratic victory than did so in January.

At a time when President Bush’s approval ratings and personal image are in sharp decline, the leading Democratic presidential candidates have made a positive impression on the public. Two-thirds (67%) of those familiar enough with Sen. John Kerry to rate him have a favorable view of him; Sen John Edwards’ favorable rating is nearly as high (63%), though fewer people are familiar with him than they are with Kerry.

Bush’s personal image, by contrast, is at the low point of his presidency. His overall favorability rating has tumbled from 72% last April, shortly after the fall of Baghdad, to 53% in the current survey. Moreover, when asked for a one-word description of Bush, equal percentages now give negative and positive responses, which marks a dramatic shift since last May when positive descriptions outnumbered negative ones by roughly two-to-one (52%-27%). The most frequently used negative word to describe Bush is “liar,” which did not come up in the May 2003 survey. The president’s job approval also stands at an all-time low. Just 48% approve of his performance as president, the first time in his presidency his rating has fallen below 50%.

In turn, the latest nationwide survey of 1,500 Americans by the Pew Research Center, conducted Feb. 11-16, finds Kerry running even with Bush in a general election match-up among registered voters (47%-47%). However, Kerry’s support is less of an endorsement of his candidacy than a reflection of opposition to Bush. Fully twice as many Kerry supporters characterize their choice as a vote against Bush rather than a vote for Kerry (30% vs. 15%). By comparison, Bush supporters are much more affirmative in their feelings about the president ­ 39% characterize their choice as a vote for Bush, while just 6% see it as a vote against Kerry.

Previous incumbent presidents, Bill Clinton and George Bush Sr., also drew more positive than negative support at this point in the election cycle, but supporters of Bush are significantly more likely to cast their choice in positive terms. In that regard, Kerry’s situation is comparable to Clinton’s in March 1992; Clinton supporters also were much more likely to see their vote as being against Bush Sr. rather than as for Clinton.

Despite the emphasis on military backgrounds in the current campaign, the public is more aware of Kerry’s electoral success than his military service record. Nearly six-in-ten (59%) are able to name Kerry as the victor in the New Hampshire primary, far more than the number who in 2000 could correctly identify Al Gore and John McCain as winners in that state’s Party primaries. In fact, Kerry’s victory was on par with Pat Buchanan’s surprise win in New Hampshire in 1996 in terms of public awareness.

In contrast, only about four-in-ten Americans (41%) could correctly identify Kerry as the Democratic candidate who “served in Vietnam and then protested the Vietnam War when he returned home.” Republicans are as likely as Democrats to know this salient fact about Kerry’s biography (42% Republican, 41% Democrat).

But the survey also found that Americans generally do not regard a presidential candidate’s military experience a very important job qualification. Just one-in-five (21%) say it is very important to learn about a candidate’s military service, which is largely unchanged since just before the last presidential campaign in October 1999 (19%). By comparison, overwhelming majorities continue to attach great value on learning about a candidate’s reputation for honesty (88%) and how well a candidate connects with average people (71%).

Accordingly, the poll found relatively little public interest in news stories about the controversy surrounding Bush’s service in the National Guard during the Vietnam War. Just one-in-five Americans (19%) followed the flap very closely. However, nearly twice as many Americans (37%) paid very close attention to reports that no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq, making that the second-ranked news story of the month behind news on the general situation in Iraq.

Bush’s slide also comes amid rising opposition to the war in Iraq. The “bounce” in support for the military operation that followed Saddam Hussein’s capture in December has completely disappeared. Currently, 56% say the war was the right decision, down from 65% last month. Perceptions of progress in Iraq also have declined. About six-in-ten (63%) say things there are going very or fairly well, compared with 75% who said that shortly after Hussein’s capture.

Still, majorities of Americans continue to believe that the war in Iraq has helped the war on terrorism (55%) and, more important, contributed to the long-term security of the United States (56%). Republicans overwhelmingly believe the war has helped in the struggle against terrorism and strengthened U.S. security, while Democrats, by smaller margins, disagree. Significantly, narrow majorities of independents feel the war has aided in the fight against terror and the security of the U.S. (52% each).

The survey also shows that the vast majority of Americans now are aware of the nation’s growing budget deficit. Only about one-in-five (21%) point to lower government revenue as a result of the tax cuts promoted by the president as contributing a great deal to the deficit; far more blame the war in Iraq (73%) or the rising cost of homeland security (46%). And when asked what has had the greatest impact on the deficit, 61% cite the war compared with 8% who cite lower revenue from the tax cuts.

More Democrats than Republicans say the tax cuts have contributed to the deficit, but even among Democrats the war in Iraq is a much bigger factor behind the nation’s fiscal imbalance. Two-thirds of Democrats (66%) say the cost of the war has had the greatest effect on the deficit; just 13% say that about the tax cuts.