Mr. Bush's Long Shadow

GENERIC George Bush Patriotic generic us flag CBS/AP

A factor that could play a significant role in voters' choices during this mid-term election is the man in the White House. A CBS News/New York Times poll released Saturday shows President Bush's influence being felt by about half of registered voters, a higher than usual number.

Forty percent of the registered voters surveyed say he will not be a factor in their vote.

Mr. Bush's impact will be more positive than negative — 31 percent say theirs will be a vote for Bush, and 19 percent say it will be a vote against him.

Control of the Senate may be at stake in the upcoming midterm election, but with only two days to go there are few signs that most registered voters are especially engaged in the election. Fewer than half think the election is interesting - and only one in three say they are more enthusiastic about voting than usual.

In 1998, 37 percent of registered voters said their vote would be either for or against then President Bill Clinton; in 1990, 34 percent said their vote would be about then-President Bush.

In the nine states with close Senate races, many of which the current office holder visited recently, his influence won't be much different. Twenty-eight percent of voters in those states say theirs will be a vote for Mr. Bush, and 20 percent say their congressional vote will be against him, while 34 percent say Mr. Bush will not factor into their vote.

EVALUATING THE PRESIDENT

Sixty-two percent of Americans (and 65 percent of registered voters) approve of the way George W. Bush is handling his job as president. Just over a quarter disapprove.

His approval rating on handling the economy seems to have slightly improved since early October, perhaps in part because of the recent stock market rebound. Now 46 percent approve of the way Mr. Bush is handling the economy, up slightly from 41 percent. Forty-three percent now disapprove of the his handling of the economy.

But the president's ratings on handling foreign policy have slipped. As the United States continues to demand a tough U.N. resolution on the Iraq issue, 54 percent now approve of the way Mr. Bush is handling foreign policy, down slightly from 57 percent at the beginning of October.

Mr. Bush's dramatically higher approval ratings in the aftermath of last year's terrorist attacks and the start of the war in Afghanistan have been on the decline ever since. His overall approval rating and his approval rating on foreign policy are now about the same as they were last March, two months after he took office.

Assessments of Mr. Bush's handling of the economy, however, are worse than they were then, and a majority of the public continues to say the president should be paying more attention to the economy, even during this time of war in Afghanistan. Fifty-seven percent say this, with 34 percent saying the president is paying as much attention as he can to the economy.

Majorities of Democrats and Independents say Mr. Bush should be paying more attention to the U.S. economy, while Republicans are evenly split. At the beginning of October, 64 percent overall said he was not paying as much attention as he could to the economy during this time of war in Afghanistan.

There are indications of uneasiness with the way things are going in the U.S. currently. Fifty-two percent of Americans now think the country is on the wrong track, while 41 percent think it is going in the right direction.

This sentiment has much to do with the public's views on the economy. In this poll, 45 percent think the economy is in good shape, and 53 percent think it is in bad shape; those who rate the economy negatively are much more likely to say the country is on the wrong track.

IMAGES OF THE PARTIES

Voters' perceptions of the two political parties have changed little since early October. On the issues, the Republican party is still seen as better able to keep the U.S. military strong and combat terrorism. Sixty-six percent of Americans see military strength as a job the Republicans do better, and fifty-two percent think dealing with terrorism is a Republican strength. Democrats have an advantage on domestic issues like Social Security and prescription drugs.

The public rates the parties most closely on issues like making sure the country is prosperous and on gun control. Among voters who think the economy is in bad shape (53 percent), the Democrats have the advantage on making sure the country is prosperous, by 49 percent to 30 percent.

However, voters who rate the economy as good or fairly good favor the Republicans over the Democrats on this issue: 54 percent to 24 percent. As for gun control, gun owners think the Republicans would do a better job on the issue, and those who do not own guns favor the Democrats.

The corporate scandals of this year appear to have hurt the Republicans more than the Democrats. American voters view the Republican Party as more likely to protect large corporations rather than ordinary Americans. Fifty-seven percent say Republicans are more interested in protecting large corporations, while 29 percent are more interested in protecting ordinary Americans.

On the other hand, 58 percent of registered voters say Democrats are interested in protecting the interests of ordinary Americans, while just 25 percent say they are more interested in protecting large corporations. When asked directly which political party big business has more influence on, more voters say the Republicans over the Democrats: 60 percent to 14 percent. Sixteen percent say both parties are equally influenced.

Overall opinions of both parties remain favorable. Fifty-seven percent of registered voters now view the Republican Party favorably, and 55 percent view the Democratic party favorably.

But more voters see the Republicans as having a clear plan for the country than the Democrats. If the Republicans gain control of Congress, 42 percent of voters think that party will have a clear plan for the country, compared to 31 percent who say the same about the Democrats. Since the Republican Party currently occupies the White House, it may be that the Republican agenda is more widely visible to the public.

VIEWS ON GOVERNMENT

Although they aren't especially enthused about the election, voters do think it makes a difference which party controls Congress, and more prefer divided government to government controlled by the same party.

Sixty-two percent of registered voters disagree that it makes no difference which party controls Congress. Thirty-four percent agree that things go on just as they did before no matter who controls Congress. These results are similar to those held by voters just before the midterm election of 1998.

By a slim margin, registered voters prefer divided government. Forty-four percent think it is better to have a president from one party and Congress controlled by a different party, while 38 percent think it is better to have the same party control both.

Opinion on divided government has fluctuated somewhat over the years; in 1996, there was a slight preference for having both arms of government controlled by the same party, while in 1989 voters' preference was for different parties.

Control of the Senate may be at stake in the upcoming midterm election, but with only two days to go there are few signs that most registered voters are especially engaged in the election. Less than half think the election is interesting, and only one in three say they are more enthusiastic about voting than usual.

Nearly eight in ten registered voters are paying at least some attention to the campaign in their area, but only 36 percent are paying a lot of attention. That is similar to voters' attention to other midterm elections. A third say they have more enthusiasm than usual about voting, but even more — 42 percent — report less enthusiasm.

Forty-five percent of registered voters describe the election as interesting, while 43 percent think it is dull.

Registered voters living in states with close Senate races are somewhat more engaged in the election this year. Fifty-four percent of voters in Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, South Dakota and Texas find the elections interesting, while 36 percent say they are dull. (New Jersey voters in a recent CBS News/New York Times Poll were intrigued by the ins and outs of their election: Sixty-five percent of voters there described the New Jersey Senate race as interesting.) Forty-two percent are more enthusiastic than usual about voting. Among likely voters in those states, enthusiasm for voting, interest in the election and attention to the campaigns is even higher.

The actual contest for control of the House is being fought in relatively few districts. This national poll, however, suggests the Republicans may have gained some ground in recent weeks. Among all registered voters, the Republicans have 44 percent, to 41 percent for the Democrats. Among a smaller subsample of those most likely to vote, 47 percent say they will vote for the Republican candidate in their district, and 40 percent will vote for the Democrat. The sampling error for this smaller group is plus or minus four percentage points, so this is still a close election.

While men are more likely to say they will vote for the Republican over the Democratic candidate in their district — 49 percent to 35 percent — women are evenly divided. Forty-six percent of women likely voters will vote Republican, and 45 percent will vote Democratic. Republicans and Democrats will support their party's candidate; 41 percent of Independents will choose the Republican, and 34 percent will vote for the Democrat.

Voter turnout in midterm elections is typically low, and the tepid voter enthusiasm for this election points to a continuation of this trend.

RE-ELECTING INCUMBENTS

Although nearly all incumbents are likely to be re-elected, that doesn't mean there is consensus among voters on whether their own representative deserves re-election. Forty-two percent of registered voters think he or she does, but nearly as many, 38 percent, think he or she does not. This lackluster review is much better than the public's feeling before the 1994 election, which resulted in the Republican takeover of Congress from the Democrats. Then 53 percent of voters thought it was time for someone new.

Voters' views about bringing back the rest of Congress are more negative. Only 24 percent think most members of Congress have done a good enough job to deserve re-election, and 61 percent think it is time for new people. Overall, 43 percent of registered voters approve of the way Congress is handling its job, and 44 percent disapprove.

ELECTION ISSUES

In the end, the outcome of this election may turn on national rather than local issues. Fifty-five percent say national issues will matter more to them in their vote this November, and 35 percent say their state or district's issues will dominate their decision.

Those national issues are decidedly domestic. The economy and jobs dominates the issues that voters say will matter in their November vote. Twenty percent of registered voters cite that as the most important issue in their vote. Thirteen percent volunteer terrorism, war and national security; while education is mentioned by 11 percent. Only two percent mention Iraq specifically.

How their congressman or woman voted on the resolution to take military action against Iraq may not matter much, since 61 percent of registered voters aren't sure how their Congressman or woman voted. Compared to actual Congressional voting records, 79 percent of those who think their representative voted for the measure are correct, and 59 percent of those who say he or she voted against the resolution are correct.

TERRORISM: STILL A THREAT

As the country approaches the first national elections since the terror attacks of September 11th, 2001, the threat of terrorism remains very real to many. Nearly three-quarters of Americans think another terror attack is likely and many continue to feel uneasy about their own safety. Moreover, the public does not think the U.S. is winning the war against terrorism.

Overall, almost six in 10 say the war against terrorism is going somewhat well — but just 11 percent say it is going very well, and 27 percent think it is going very or somewhat badly. When asked whom they think is winning the war against terrorism, the public's answer is that nobody is winning. Forty-seven percent say that neither side is winning the war, while 34 percent say the U.S. and its allies are winning, and 14 percent believe the terrorists are currently winning the war against terrorism.

Americans are resigned to having the cloud of terrorism hanging over the country. Eighty-five percent agree that the country will always have to live with the fear of terrorism.

Seventy-four percent think it is very or somewhat likely that another attack will take place. This number is up somewhat from this past September, when 67 percent felt that way. Now, just 22 percent now say an attack is not likely.

Most Americans, however, are not overly concerned about an attack where they live. Almost a third say they are very concerned, while 67 percent say they are not concerned about an attack in their area. These numbers are nearly identical to what they were in October 2001, shortly after the attacks of 9/11. Those living in big cities are particularly concerned.

About half of Americans personally feel safe, but nearly as many feel threatened by terrorism. Fifty-two percent say they feel safe, and 47 percent say they personally still feel either uneasy or in danger. However, many perceive a widespread uneasiness in the country: Seventy-seven percent say their fellow citizens are feeling uneasy or in danger.

There is some worry as well that the government is not doing enough to protect its citizens. Half of Americans — 49 percent — say the government has done all it could reasonably be expected to do in order to make the country safe since September 11th, while 46 percent believe it has not, and that it could have done more.

The public is also divided in its opinions of the administration's management of its campaign against terrorism. While 42 percent say the Bush administration has a clear plan for it's policy against terrorism, slightly more — 49 percent — think the administration is just simply reacting to events as they occur. This is a bit of an improvement from just over three weeks ago when more than half (54 percent) said the administration was just reacting to events.


This poll was conducted among a nationwide random sample of 1,018 adults, interviewed by telephone October 27-31, 2002. The error due to sampling for results based on the entire sample could be plus or minus three percentage points. Sampling error for subgroups may be higher..

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  • Brian Bernbaum

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