- The Washington Times - Monday, May 19, 2003

Eighteen months before the 2004 election, President Bush appears in a strong position to win another term. Ongoing voter reservations about the credibility of the Democratic field, as well as emerging concerns about who will effectively prosecute the war on terrorism, pose huge hurdles for potential White House rivals — and major advantages for Mr. Bush.

The capacity to lead the war on terrorism is becoming an important screening mechanism for presidential vote choice, not unlike the ability to deal with the Russians during the Cold War. In short, the public appears to becoming averse to considering someone for president unless he (or she) is tough enough to prosecute our efforts, even if the candidate is otherwise the ‘right’ man.

For instance, in our most recent edition of the American Survey (conducted May 6-8 among 600 registered voters nationwide, margin of error plus/minus 4.0 percent), we asked how the war affects presidential voting. More than half (51 percent) answered that the war on terror was important, but no more important than the economy. Only a bit more than a quarter (28 percent) said that they would not vote for someone unless he (or she) could lead the war on terror.

Yet, when we rearranged the question and asked whether they would vote for someone they did not think was tough enough on the war on terror, even if they were certain that person was otherwise the best candidate, more robust concerns about terrorism emerged. In that case, 47 percent said they would not vote for someone unless he was tough enough, and 42 percent said they would. The narrowing of the responses suggests that voters, while still trying to sort out these issues, are beginning to create a filter — involving perceived vigor and competence on the war on terror — through which all successful candidates for president must pass.

This cannot be good news for the Democrats. Whatever his failings, President Bush has shown that he has the emotional discipline and intellectual toughness necessary to fight the war. Whether (and which of) his Democratic opponents do, is a matter for conjecture.

Perhaps as interesting is the division within groups on this issue. First, among those who are undecided about 2004, 41 percent said that this toughness is the crucial determinant; 43 percent said it is not. This closeness among the undecided, on an issue which the president essentially dominates, suggests that the Democrats are going to face some tough sledding in 2004. Second, the gender gap, prevalent in other questions about the election, vanishes on this question. Among women, 47 percent indicated that rigor on the war on terror is a vital vote determinant, 41 percent said it is not. These results are remarkably similar for men (47 percent and 44 percent). This is especially notable because on a host of other electoral questions, there were sizable divisions between the men and the women (see chart).

Beyond suggesting a difficult road for the Democrats, this sentiment could explain at least some of the fatalism about a Bush reelection seen in the survey. Almost half of the respondents (47 percent) think that President Bush will win re-election in 2004. Less than half (23 percent) think the Democratic nominee will win. In the sort of sentiment that becomes corrosive and eventually self-fulfilling, one in five of those who plan to vote against the president think he will win; among self-identified liberals, 37 percent believe the president will be re-elected; 35 percent believe he will not be.

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