August 7, 2003

Bush Approval Slips – Fix Economy, Say Voters

Democrats Frustrated with Party Even as Candidates Gain Visibility

Introduction and Summary

As President Bush shows increasing political vulnerability, the Democratic presidential field is beginning to come into focus. Bush’s overall approval rating has declined to pre-Iraq war levels and his lead in a match-up with a hypothetical Democrat has narrowed to five points (43%-38%). Nearly six-in-ten Americans (57%) now say the economy – not terrorism – is the more important presidential priority. At the same time, Democratic candidates have made modest gains in visibility, and potential support, since early-July.

Yet most Democrats are unhappy with their party’s performance in standing up for core principles and this frustration has increased over the past year. Six-in-ten Democrats say the party is doing only a fair or poor job of standing up for traditional positions such as helping the poor and representing working people, while just 38% say the party is doing an excellent or good job in this area. Since May 2002, the number who say the party is doing at most only a fair job of standing up for core principles has risen seven points, from 53% to 60%.

The Democrats’ unhappiness is even more evident when contrasted with the positive feelings Republicans have for their party. Fully 57% of Republicans believe the GOP is doing an excellent or good job of advocating traditional party positions like cutting taxes and promoting conservative social values. In May 2002, 55% of Republicans gave the party high marks for standing up for core principles.

Among Democrats, liberals have become especially unhappy with the party’s performance in standing up for traditional principles, and this has led to a large ideological gap within the party over this issue. In May 2001, near the beginning of Bush’s term, roughly the same numbers of liberal and conservative Democrats expressed satisfaction with how well the party was doing in this area (48% of liberals, 45% of conservatives). But today, just 31% of liberal Democrats say the party has done an excellent or good job of advocating traditional positions, while conservative Democrats are, if anything, slightly more satisfied with the party’s performance than they were two years ago (52% good/excellent).

The latest Pew Research Center national poll of 2,528 adults, conducted July 14-Aug. 5, shows that the rising dissatisfaction among Democrats with their party is not shaping the presidential race. None of the party’s candidates has a major advantage in terms of potential support among disaffected Democratic voters. Overall, there has been a gradual increase since July in the proportion of Americans who are familiar with the Democratic candidates and in the percentage who say there is at least some chance that they would vote for them.

Since July, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has made somewhat larger gains than the other candidates. His name recognition is up nine points (from 37% to 46%), and among those who have heard of Dean, 41% say there is a “good” or “some” chance they would vote for him, up from 32% in July. But Dean continues to trail Sen. Joe Lieberman (50%), Sen. John Kerry (47%) and Rep. Dick Gephardt (45%) in terms of potential support. Most voters (54%), including 55% of Democrats and Democratic leaners, have still not heard of Dean. Lieberman, Gephardt and Kerry have much greater name recognition, among all voters and among Democrats. Candidate visibility and support – as well as other opinions measured in this survey – did not change significantly over the course of the polling period.

As President Bush’s approval rating has inched downward – from 58% last month to 53% in the current survey – there has been a sharp rise in the number of Americans who believe Bush should devote more attention to the economy than to the war on terrorism. More than twice as many Americans say it is more important for the president to focus on the economy as say that about the war on terrorism (57% vs. 27%).

That represents a dramatic shift since January when a 43% plurality felt Bush should devote more attention to the war on terrorism. Those who believe the president should focus more on the economy (a group largely comprised of Democrats and independents) disapprove of his job performance by 50%-42%. The smaller proportion of the public who say it is more important for Bush to focus on the war on terrorism (mostly Republicans and independents) overwhelmingly approve of his job performance (75%-18%).

Public perceptions of the U.S. military operation in Iraq have become more negative, though a 63% majority continues to endorse the decision to go to war. On domestic issues, Americans continue to voice willingness to roll back or delay tax cuts – rather than cut domestic programs or add to the deficit – to finance increased spending on defense and homeland security. Moreover, solid majorities favor providing universal health insurance even if it means repealing tax cuts or raising taxes.

Democratic Candidates Gain

In the Democratic horse race, in which name recognition continues to be a major factor, Lieberman draws the most support (58%). The percentage of all Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters who say there is a “good” or “some” chance they would vote for Lieberman has risen from 49% in July. Lieberman also is the best-known candidate, with 85% of Democratic voters saying they have heard of him.

Gephardt and Kerry trail Lieberman in support among all Democratic voters (49% and 42%, respectively). Like Lieberman, these two candidates also have fairly broad name recognition. Roughly seven-in-ten Democratic voters (73%) say they have heard of Gephardt while nearly six-in-ten (59%) say they are familiar with Kerry.

About three-in-ten Democratic voters (29%) say there is a “good” or “some” chance they will vote for Dean, a significant gain since July (19%). But Dean remains an unknown figure to most Democratic voters (55%, down from 65% last month). Dean’s support is comparable with that of Sen. Bob Graham (30%) and Sen. John Edwards (27%). While Graham is better known, more Democratic voters say there is no chance they will vote for him (23%) than say that about Dean (10%) or Edwards (12%).

Fully 70% of Democrats say there is no chance they will vote to reelect the president, up from 62% a month ago. Fewer than three-in-ten say there is a good (12%) or some (17%) chance that they will vote for Bush.

Measuring Potential Support

The Democratic presidential picture changes when viewed from the perspective of only those Democratic voters who are familiar with the candidates. In that case, Kerry, Dean, Gephardt and Lieberman all draw comparable levels of potential support.

Of Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters who have heard of him, 71% say there is at least some chance they would vote for Kerry, and slightly fewer say the same about Gephardt (68%) and Lieberman (68%). Slightly fewer Democrats would consider voting for Dean (64%) but that is up from 53% a month ago. About six-in-ten Democratic voters (61%) say there is at least some chance they would vote for Edwards. Roughly half of Democrats familiar with Bob Graham and Carol Moseley Braun say they would consider voting for them.

Kerry, Dean, Gephardt and Lieberman also elicit similar levels of voter enthusiasm. A quarter of Democrats say there is a “good” chance they will vote for Kerry and the same percentage says that about Dean. Nearly as many say there is a good chance they will vote for Gephardt (22%) or Lieberman (21%).

Ideology and the War

Much of the enthusiasm for Dean and Kerry comes from the left wing of the Democratic party and from opponents of the war in Iraq. Among self-described libe
rals, 38% say there is a good chance they will vote for Dean and 32% say that about Kerry. Both candidates engender much more enthusiasm among liberals than among conservative and moderate Democratic voters. (Among registered voters who identify with or lean toward the Democratic party, 31% describe themselves as liberal, 43% describe themselves as moderate and 23% conservative.)

In contrast, Gephardt and Graham win the most enthusiasm among conservative Democrats at this point in the race, but both are struggling to appeal to liberals. Gephardt leads the pack among conservative Democrats, with 25% saying there is a good chance they will vote for him, but trails five other candidates, including Rep. Dennis Kucinich, within the liberal wing of the party.

Views on the war in Iraq also are closely tied to voting considerations. Democratic voters are divided over whether the U.S. made the right decision (43%) or the wrong decision (49%) in using military force in Iraq. Democrats who support the war are divided in their allegiance at this point. Fully half say there is a good chance (21%) or some chance (29%) that they will vote to reelect Bush in 2004, and no Democratic candidate stands out as a particularly strong challenger among war supporters.

Opponents of the war, by contrast, are taking an “anybody but Bush” attitude about the upcoming election: every Democratic candidate garners more support among war opponents than they do among war proponents. Kerry receives the most support among war opponents – 76% say there is some chance they will vote for him, slightly more than say that about Gephardt (69%), Lieberman (69%) and Dean (67%). Dean receives more enthusiastic support among war opponents than the other candidates. A third of Democratic voters who oppose the war say there is a good chance they will vote for Dean, compared with 30% for Kerry, 27% for Gephardt, and 26% for Lieberman.

Sharpton Polarizes

There are significant demographic divides within the Democratic party that may well affect candidate strategies as the primary season progresses. Former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun and the Rev. Al Sharpton – the African-American candidates in the race – both elicit significantly more support among black Democrats than among whites. The racial gap is particularly stark when it comes to Sharpton – half of African-American Democrats and Democratic leaners say there is some (33%) or a good (18%) chance they will vote for Sharpton, compared with just 18% of white Democrats (4% good chance, 14% some chance).

But race is not a factor for all candidates in the field. Lieberman, Graham and Edwards receive comparable levels of support from both white and black Democrats. Dean, Gephardt, Kerry and Kucinich, on the other hand, have more limited appeal among black voters than they do among whites.

Age and gender also are factors in candidate preferences. Dean’s potential support is far stronger among young Democrats and Democratic leaners than among those over age 50, while Gephardt is viewed much more favorably among older voters in the party. Dean also elicits possible support from 71% of Democratic men, but just 57% of Democratic women. The only candidate who garners more support from Democratic women than men is Moseley Braun.

Preferences Not Strongly Influenced by Party Criticism

Democrats, especially liberals, are increasingly dissatisfied with the way the party is standing up for core principles. But there is no evidence that any of the nine candidates have been able to directly tap into this unhappiness. Roughly a quarter of Democratic voters who express frustration with the party’s performance in this area say there is a good chance they will vote for Kerry and Dean (26% each). But both candidates draw comparable support from those who say the party has done well in advocating traditional positions.

Gephardt and Lieberman do somewhat better among the satisfied group than among Democrats who are unhappy with the party’s advocacy of traditional positions. Roughly three-in-ten (28%) say there is a good chance they will vote for each of the candidates compared with 18% of those who are dissatisfied with the party’s performance in standing up for traditional positions.

War Bounce Smaller Than for Bush Sr.

A 53% majority approves of the job George W. Bush is doing as president while 37% disapprove. That is the highest negative rating the president has received since taking office. After reaching a peak of 86% just after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the president’s approval rating declined through much of 2002 and early 2003, before rallying to 74% during the war in Iraq.

This spike was shorter in duration and smaller in size than the one experienced by Bush’s father, former President George H. W. Bush, after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Prior to the start of the war in December 1990, Bush Sr. was at 61% in the polls, and rose to a peak of 86% after the conclusion of hostilities. His approval rating fell afterwards, but did not reach prewar levels until November of 1991. By contrast, George W. Bush was at 55% in mid-March and rose to 74% approval around the time of the fall of Baghdad in early April. He has now fallen back to prewar levels, five months later.

Republicans remain steadfast in their support of the president, with 91% approving of his performance and only 6% disapproving. But ratings among both Democrats and independents have continued their downward slide. Just 30% of Democrats say they approve of the president’s performance, the lowest level since before Sept. 11, 2001. Independents are more positive than Democrats, but they are closer in their views to the Democrats than to Republicans. Just under half of independents now approve (48%), which also is their lowest level in the post-9/11 period. As recently as June, nearly six-in-ten independents (59%) approved of the Bush’s job performance.

The president’s approval ratings showed no significant uptick as a result of the U.S. military raid in Iraq in which Saddam Hussein’s sons, Uday and Qusay, were killed.

Along with increasing disapproval of his job performance, the president is facing a public expressing a growing degree of dissatisfaction with the way things are going in the country. The poll finds 53% dissatisfied with the state of the nation, while 40% are satisfied. The 40% satisfaction essentially matches the low points in the national mood experienced just prior to Sept. 11, 2001 and again in September 2002. There is a strong partisan tilt to these results; 64% of Republicans are satisfied with the way things are going, compared with only 25% of Democrats.

More Want Greater Focus on Economy

The survey also finds a dramatic increase in the percentage of the public who say that it is more important for Bush to focus on the economy rather than on the war on terrorism. Growth in the importance of the economy in the public’s mind has occurred across the political and economic spectrum.

More than two-thirds of blacks (69%) rate the economy a more important presidential priority than terrorism compared with 55% of whites. But concern among both groups grew by nearly 20 points since January. Similarly, more Republicans and Democrats say Bush should focus more attention on the economy than did so in January, but large partisan differences persist. Republicans are divided on the question (43% say it is more important for the president to focus on the economy, 40% say war on terrorism) while Democrats overwhelmingly say the economy should be the focus (70% economy/ 18% war on terrorism). Opinion that the president should focus on the economy grew 28 points among young people (age 18-29); they are now the age group with the greatest concern about the economy.

Bush’s Lead Slips

A plurality of registered voters say they would like to see the president reelected in 2004, but his advantage over a hypothetical Democrat is declining. In the current poll, 43% say they prefer Bush compared with 38% who prefer a Democrat. Bush led by 47%-37% in a poll taken last month. In April, just after the fall of Baghdad, Bush’s lead stood at 14 points (48%-34%).

Bush is still doing better among Republicans than the hypothetical Democrat is doing among Democrats, but there is evidence that Democratic voters – and traditional Democrat-leaning demographic groups – are coming home. In addition, the president has lost ground among independents, who are now divided between Bush and a Democratic candidate (34% for Bush, 33% for a Democrat).

Women, especially older women, liberals and middle- and low-income Americans have moved away from Bush. In April there was no gender gap in preferences for 2004, with men favoring Bush by 48% to 35% and women favoring him 48% to 34%. Today, the preferences of men are nearly unchanged (49% Bush, 32% a Democrat), while a plurality of women now support a Democrat (44% Democrat vs. 37% Bush). Much of the shift has come from women age 50 and older. In April, a 52% majority of women age 50 and older favored Bush’s reelection. In the current survey, only about a third (35%) support his reelection while 45% prefer a Democrat.

Similarly, the economic gap in presidential preferences is now much wider than in April. A solid majority (55%) of voters with annual family incomes of greater than $50,000 continue to support Bush’s reelection. That compares with only about a third (34%) of voters with annual household incomes of less than $50,000. In April, a 46% plurality of this group backed Bush’s reelection; today, a comparable plurality (45%) backs the Democrat.

Iraq: Growing Pessimism

Faced with a steady stream of reports of American casualties in Iraq, an increasing percentage of the public thinks the military effort is not going well. The belief that the U.S. made a mistake in launching the war also has grown, though much more slowly. More than a third of the public (35%) now believes the military effort is going “not too well” (24%) or “not at all well” (11%). This total is up 14 points from a survey conducted June 19-July 2 (21%). Currently, only 19% say the war is going “very well,” though 43% say it is going “fairly well.”

But a large majority of the public continues to regard the decision to go to war as a sound one. By more than two-to-one (63% to 30%), respondents say that using military force in Iraq was the right decision. The number who say that the war was the wrong decision has risen six points since the early July survey (from 24% to 30%).

Republicans continue to believe that the war was the right thing to do; 90% still feel that way, compared with 93% in late April. But many more Democrats and independents express reservations about the war. After the fall of Baghdad in April, a majority of Democrats (59%) felt that the war was the right decision; now just 46% feel this way. A majority of independents continue to say the U.S. did the right thing (61%), but this is down 12 points since April, when 73% felt this way.

The current survey was underway when American military forces killed Saddam Hussein’s sons on July 22; respondents interviewed after this event were somewhat more positive about the progress of the war: prior to the event, 36% said the war is not going well, compared with 31% who felt this way after the news reports about it. Attitudes about the wisdom of the decision to go to war were unaffected by the killing of the Hussein sons.

Sacrifice Tax Cuts for Security, Health Care

In principle, Americans generally support the tax cuts that have been enacted since Bush became president. But the public continues to prefer postponing or reducing the tax cuts – rather than reducing domestic spending or adding to the deficit – to finance the expanding budget for defense and homeland security. And solid majorities say they support providing health insurance for all Americans even if it means scaling back recent tax cuts, or even raising taxes.

Overall, a 41% plurality believes the best way to pay for the increased cost of defense and homeland security is by postponing or reducing recent tax cuts. That number has been largely unchanged since February 2002. But Americans are showing less willingness to pay for these programs by adding to the budget deficit (15%, down from 20% in late March and 24% in February 2002). And about a quarter (23%) would cut domestic programs for pay for increased security spending, an increase of seven points since late March.

There are clear partisan differences over this issue, but the ideological divisions within parties are more striking. Most liberal Democrats (63%) favor postponing or reducing tax cuts to pay for increased defense and homeland security. That is far more than any other group, including conservative and moderate Democrats (44%). At the other end of the political spectrum, 42% of conservative Republicans support cutting domestic programs to finance defense and homeland security; no more than 27% in any other group (moderate and liberal Republicans) backs that approach.

Most Favor Raising Taxes for Health Care

Two-thirds of the public (67%) favors the government guaranteeing health care for all citizens even if it means repealing most of the recent tax cuts. Significantly, just as many Americans say they want the government to provide universal health coverage even if it means raising taxes.

Half of respondents were asked if the government should guarantee health insurance for all even if it means repealing “most of the recent tax cuts,” while the other half was asked a different version of the question that mentioned “raising taxes.” The virtually identical results indicate that most people do not make a distinction between providing health insurance by rolling back tax cuts or by actually raising taxes.

Partisanship influences attitudes on both measures, with Democrats more supportive of scrapping tax cuts and raising taxes than are Republicans. Still, half of Republicans favor repealing tax cuts to provide health insurance for all Americans and somewhat more (60%) back raising taxes to achieve that goal. By comparison, more Democrats prefer repealing tax cuts than raising taxes to provide universal health coverage.

Medicare Benefit Too Skimpy

Roughly half of Americans (51%) feel that pending legislation in Congress to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare will not go far enough in covering seniors’ drug costs. Only about one-in-five (21%) believe the benefits are about right while 10% say the legislation goes too far in covering the cost of prescription drugs.

There are significant age differences in attitudes toward the legislation. People age 65 and older have a relatively measured reaction to the proposal – 45% think it will not go far enough, 22% say it is about right and 9% think it will go too far. A relatively high proportion of seniors (24%) declined to offer an opinion.

Criticism of the proposed drug benefit is more widespread among those age 50-64. Nearly six-in-ten in this group (59%) believe the legislation does not go far enough in covering prescription drug costs – far more than any other age category. Half of those under age 50 think the coverage provided by the legislation will be inadequate.

Politically, a solid majority of Democrats (60%) say the legislation does not go far enough in addressing prescription drug costs compared with 40% of Republicans. Conservative Republicans have the most favorable view of the Medicare plan, with 28% saying the level of benefits will be appropriate. Still, even a plurality in this group (36%) says the proposal does not go far enough in covering prescription drug costs.