The Challenge Of Changing Subjects

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Anthony Salvanto is with the CBS News Polling Unit. Jinghua Zou and Michael Butterworth contributed to this piece.
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The Iraq war ended and already new battle lines have been drawn.

No, this is not about Syria, but politics here at home, where the president and the Democrats who want his job are gearing up for a fight over the economy. Their strategies seem clear enough: the Democrats want to shift the debate away from the Iraq war, and the president wants to parlay the political capital he got from it.

A look at some recent CBS News polls suggests it won't be as simple as that for either of them, though. Each needs to deal with some potential swing groups whose opinions could ultimately make or break their strategies, and there is little that either side can take for granted.

For the Democrats, that starts with their image on dealing with the economy: even though they may want to talk about it, that doesn't mean Americans see them as best able to improve it. In the latest CBS News poll, Americans are split, with 42 percent saying the Democrats are best able to make the economy strong, and an identical 42 percent saying the Republicans are. (Though it is interesting to note that the Democrats are better positioned on this today than they were in 1991, when just 27 percent said the Democrats were better for the economy.)

For reference, compare this to the huge advantage Republicans hold on defense and terrorism issues: 51 percent say the Republicans are best able to keep the country safe from terrorism and just 27 percent say the Democrats are. The Republicans also hold a huge 63 to 21 percent edge as the party best able to keep the military strong.

Next, a key group for Democrats in this struggle could be the war supporters within their own ranks who, in backing the president against Iraq, also tend to back the president in general. Right now, two-thirds of Democrats say they approve of the war, and 80 percent of those who do also approve of the job Mr. Bush is doing, overall. Certainly, part of this is a rally effect; before the war started, Democrats were about evenly split over military action, which is probably a better measure of the divide in the party — though that's also where we find signs that some of the war support looks more than transient.

About 20 percent of all Democrats seem especially hawkish. During the buildup to war in January and February, these Democratic hawks wanted to take military action against Saddam and — unlike most of their party — became unwilling to wait for the U.N. or weapons inspectors before doing so. Plus, nearly half of them felt that the U.S. was already winning the war on terror under the president's guidance, compared to the less-than one-third of other Democrats who did. (Today, almost two-thirds of Democrats who support the Iraq action think the U.S. is winning the terror war; just a quarter of other Democrats do.)

In all, it's a group of Democrats generally in step with the president on war and terrorism issues, and their strong backing for war meant backing for Mr. Bush, overall: they gave the president high marks for handling the crisis and 70 percent job approval ratings, too.

This group is critical for the vote-counters to watch as 2004 approaches, because these Democrats are more likely to be younger, suburban and rural men, and to call themselves conservative — i.e., they're just the sort of voters that Democrats have been having trouble hanging onto lately. They're also less likely to come from states in the Northeast, where Democrats generally did well in 2000, and a bit more likely to hail from Midwestern or southern states, most of which landed in President Bush's column in 2000 — and some of which the Democrats might need to capture next year.

Meanwhile, the president can't assume that his support as Commander-in-Chief easily transfers to support for his economic stewardship, and though he appears to be taking steps right now to try to make that happen, the latest CBS News poll suggests he may have some work ahead of him. Even in the afterglow of victory in Iraq, the public very clearly separates his ratings on war and the economy: 80 percent give him high marks for handling of the war, but his ratings on the economy drop to under 50 percent. And he's less likely to get good ratings on handling the economy from people who back the war than he is to get bad ratings on the economy from people who think the economy is in trouble.

So, just as the Democrats might need to pay heed to their Bush-backers, the president also faces a key group that could hold the key to his success: people who approve of the war, but who think the economy is lousy.

This is a big crowd — 40 percent of all war supporters — with a mix of partisans in it: it's nearly 40 percent Independents with Democrats and Republicans about one-third each. They give the president overall very high job approval ratings, which shows that the war is still probably driving his overall evaluations. Yet only 30 percent of them approve of his handling of the economy, which shows the degree to which they will separate the two evaluations.

Half of them — including almost half of the Republicans among them — think Mr. Bush could be paying more attention to the economy. The independents among them — whose party loyalty is obviously the most up for grabs — are split on which party they think will make the economy better, with many saying they do not know. And while this group overwhelmingly approves of how the president is handling Iraq, a majority say they are uneasy about Mr. Bush's ability to make the right economic decisions.

What the early numbers leave unanswered, though, are the criteria for success: is it enough for the president to be perceived as trying to help the economy — especially when he is tackling one undermined by the terrorist attacks of 2001 — or do his policies actually have to work in order for him to benefit?

As a general rule, the public does hold the president responsible for the state of the economy as they see it. Moreover, it often appears that in the end they do not judge him by the specifics of his policies, but rather by the results they see around them or in their pocketbooks — so either things get well, and the president must therefore deserve credit, or things don't and he must be to blame.

There are already signs of this right now: 60 percent who say the economy is doing badly think the president is not paying enough attention to it, while 67 percent of those who think it is doing well say he is indeed paying attention.

Denying him credit or absolving him of blame would, then, be highly unusual. Yet these are unusual times. Many have already begun comparisons to 1991 and the first Bush administration. But the first Gulf War ended and Americans came home. In post-Sept. 11 America, most see the Iraq action as just one part of an ongoing war on terror.

So in this opening battle, Americans who have the war foremost in their minds seem to present a clear challenge for the Democrats. Meanwhile those Americans who, unhappy with the economy, think the war is foremost in George Bush's mind may pose the biggest test for him.

By Anthony Salvanto
  • Lloyd Vries

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