- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 22, 2004

Voter surveys showing Democratic presidential front-runner John Kerry defeating President Bush are premature, at best, and do not reflect the president’s relatively stable job-approval rating, polling analysts say.

Other factors behind the numbers, meanwhile, suggest the president may not be in as much political trouble as his opponents believe.

A USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll reported Wednesday that public support for Mr. Kerry had soared, putting him 12 points ahead of the president in a head-to-head matchup among likely voters — 55 percent to 43 percent.

But the poll’s footnotes suggest the Massachusetts senator’s spurt in the polls may have more to do with the sharp increase in the number of Democrats who described themselves as ‘likely voters’ than with any change in the way voters perceive the president’s job performance.

“The larger fluctuation Gallup found among likely voters probably reflects the ebb and flow of news stories about the Democratic primaries, which in turn can affect the relative number of Democrats or Republicans in the ‘likely voter’ pool at any given point in time,” the Gallup organization said in the fine print explaining the surprising shift in the matchup numbers.

The statistics shifted during “a period of intense coverage of Democratic primaries and caucuses,” which raised Democratic voter interest in the campaign and thus “boosted their chances of being included in the Gallup ‘likely voter’ model,” Gallup said.

The big rise in the Democratic voter numbers was an “unusual situation” because “Republicans are disproportionately likely to be ‘likely voters’ in most situations, which has historically given them an advantage on Election Day,” the polling firm said.

Making the numbers more questionable was that, between the New Hampshire and Wisconsin primaries, “Bush’s job-approval rating has remained essentially stable, ranging between 49 percent and 52 percent,” Gallup said.

“Thus, the changes in the horse-race figures would appear to reflect more the changing likelihood of Democrats turning out to vote than a fundamental change in the public’s perceptions of Bush,” the poll concluded.

Moreover, not all surveys found the Democrats doing as well as Gallup did. An American Research Group poll found the race in a virtual dead heat last week — 48 percent for Mr. Kerry and 46 percent for Mr. Bush.

The race was equally tight in another poll conducted by John Zogby. It showed Mr. Kerry narrowly defeating Mr. Bush in the states won by Al Gore in 2000, while Mr. Bush won easily in the states he carried in that election.

Polling analysts said a major reason for the decline in Mr. Bush’s matchup numbers is the result of the intense Democratic attacks throughout the early primaries that received heavy media attention night after night.

“You can’t possibly evaluate the president’s strength or vulnerability in a straight head-to-head ballot question taken immediately after the Democrats had dominated the discussion for two months,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres.

“You need to look at historical comparisons for any valid sense of the president’s standing today. Historically, Bush now stands at almost exactly the same place Bill Clinton stood in February 1996 and Richard Nixon stood in February 1972,” Mr. Ayres said.

“Bush is basically at 51 percent or 52 percent in the [independent] Gallup Poll. Clinton was at 53 percent and Nixon was in 52 percent,” he said. Both presidents easily won re-election in those years, with Mr. Nixon winning in a 49-state re-election landslide.

Other pollsters said that a spike in the Democratic vote in the early months of an election year after a string of hard-fought, media-promoted primaries was nothing new.

In May 1984, for example, after a tough Democratic primary battle, polls showed Democrat Walter Mondale locked in a 49 percent to 49 percent dead heat against President Reagan. Mr. Reagan won that year in a 49-state landslide.

Recent polls also show voters are not buying a lot of the Democrats’ attack lines they used in the primaries against Mr. Bush.

A Pew Research Center poll released Thursday, which gave Mr. Bush a 53 percent favorability score, found that a 55 percent majority believe the war in Iraq has helped the United States in its war on terrorism.

When asked what has had the biggest impact on the mushrooming budget deficit, 61 percent cited the costs of the war in Iraq, compared to only 8 percent who point to the Bush tax cuts that Democrats have blamed for the fiscal shortfall, the Pew poll said.

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