Friday, April 23, 2004

# Posted 9:37 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

EYESIGHT FOR THE BLIND: Democratic pundits are laboring mightily to show that recent poll results aren't nearly as favorable to President Bush as one might think at first glance. I'd say the best argument against the polls comes from Ruy Texeira, who observes that Kerry is pulling ahead in the battleground states that will decide the election.

Much less impressive are the arguments made by Ryan Lizza and Josh Marshall, whose columns appear together on today's NYT op-ed page (alongside columns by Bob Herbert and Paul Krugman, just in case you find Lizza and Marshall to be insufficiently anti-Bush.) Marshall begins his column by pointing out an apparent paradox:
In this year's presidential campaign, no wisdom is more conventional than the assumption that George W. Bush's re-election effort will succeed or fail along with the American mission in Iraq. If Iraq collapses, the reasoning goes, the Bush presidency will soon follow. And yet here was the president gaining ground, in several polls released this week, in the face of what were certainly the worst three weeks in Iraq since the United States deposed Saddam Hussein a year ago.
As it turns out, there is actually a very simple explanation for this paradox. When asked who would do a better job handling the situation in Iraq, voters are pretty sure that the answer is Bush. His margin in the WaPo/ABC poll is 51-42, while his margin in the CNN/Gallup poll is 40-26 with 15 percent saying that both candidates would do a good job. If Marshall had noticed these numbers, he wouldn't wind up asking his audience (mis)leading questions such as
If Americans decide that Iraq is a disaster, why do they not see him as the cause of the problem? Why has support for the president bounced back (up four points in one poll) even as approval of his handling of Iraq has fallen (down three points in the same poll)?
Marshall's first question presumes that voters have identified Iraq as a disaster. But that isn't so clear cut. CNN/Gallup shows that voters are not happy with Bush's handling of Iraq by a margin of 49-48. The same respondents still believe that going to war was the right decision by a margin of 52-46. The WaPo/ABC poll shows voters unhappy with the situation in Iraq by 54-45 margin but still approving of the decision to go to war 51-47.

Looking at Iraq, the only numbers Lizza mentions are the 54% negative rating from the Wa/Po ABC poll and the same poll's observation that 65% of voters believe that the number of American casualties sustained in Iraq is unacceptable. The latter figure is misleading for two reasons. First, it has fluctuated in the same four point range (33-37%) for six months now. Thus, there is no correlation between the 65% figure and the recent upsurge of violence in Iraq. By extension, there is no reason to believe that the 65% figure has had an impact on Bush's re-elect numbers.

Second, how often will any poll respondent describe the tragic deaths of American soldiers as "acceptable"? That is why, when you ask voters whether the US military should restore order in Iraq even if it means taking more casualties, they answer 'Yes' by a stunning 66-33 margin. Moreover, that margin has been increasing over the last six months.

But what if you ask the public whether the United States "has gotten bogged down" in Iraq or is "making good progress"? Faced with that kind of black-and-white choice, the answer is "bogged down" by a margin of 59-41. Yet at the same time, the public favors sending more troops by a margin of 54-44.

That said, let's go back to Marshall's second question of why Bush' re-elect numbers are rising while approval of his work on Iraq is falling. The answer is "issue salience". If you take a look at Question 12 in the WaPo/ABC poll, you'll see that 22% of the public lists terrorism as the "single most important issue" affecting their vote while 23% say Iraq. 26% say "the economy and jobs". Six weeks ago, 36% said economy & jobs while the numbers for terrorism and Iraq were 17 and 10. In December, the numbers for terrorism and Iraq were 14 and 9.

All of these additional numbers I'm throwing at you really just make the same point: that no matter how much all the headlines about Richard Clarke and Moqtada Sadr hurt George Bush, they hurt John Kerry even more. Yes, it is ironic. Bad news makes national security more important. George Bush is responsible for a fair amount of that bad news. But what voters fear even more is giving John Kerry a chance to clean up the mess.

Do I feel the same way? I'm not sure. I'm undecided and probably will be for quite a while. But I am pretty sure that I will vote for whoever I think can do a better job of handling terrorism and Iraq.

Last but not least: Ryan Lizza points out that Reagan had a 54% approval rating in April 1984 while Clinton had a 56% rating in April 1996. In contrast, Bush is "hanging by his fingertips" with 51 or 52 percent. What Lizza overlooks is the fact both Reagan and Clinton won their elections by a landslide. No one expects Bush to do that. All that matters is who wins.
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