Man Without Qualities

Thursday, November 28, 2002

What Lies Beneath

Almost any Presidential election is about 80% about the economy.

This is a rule of thumb that not only does - or, at least, should - guide political professionals. In the personal experience of the Man Without Qualities it is roughly what most ordinary voters consciously know and actually say - although they tend to use a different vocabulary to express themselves. It is not an esoteric point, although it is one surprisingly often overlooked.

It is a point worth keeping in mind regardless of one's political affiliation in considering President Bush's continuing strong job approval ratings. According to a new Fox News poll over two-thirds of people surveyed say they approve of the job Bush is doing and 20 percent disapprove. But Opinion Dynamics President John Gorman notes "It is interesting that despite these high approval ratings, only 44 percent of the public say that they will vote to re-elect Bush. ... While only 21 percent are definitely voting Democratic, fully 35 percent are waiting to see or are undecided. Of course, whatever reservations people may have about re-electing him, the other questions indicate that the Democrats don't currently have a candidate capable of making the race competitive"

While reading the chicken entrails of polls is often a dark and uncertain art, in this case Mr. Bush's high "undecided" count seems pretty well correlated with the ambiguous state of the economy. If the economy fully strengthens in the coming year, and nothing else changes (which, of course, is never the case), Mr. Bush will probably be unstoppable in 2004. But if the economy is soft in early 2004, he will have proportionate trouble getting reelected, regardless of how high his job approval numbers may then be. For good reasons, many people are just "undecided" about whether the economy will be in good shape during the next two years - so they are "undecided" about whether they will vote for Bush. The whole thing just doesn't seem that mysterious.

Nor is it particularly significant that the Democrats don't currently have a candidate capable of making the race competitive. It probably doesn't matter that much if a "competitive" Democratic candidate emerges before the end of 2003 if the economy is soft. For example, in 1991 the then-obscure, un-competitive Bill Clinton was able to run and win because every prominent Democrat was cowed by George H.W. Bush's sky-high job approval numbers following the Gulf War. But Hillary Clinton reportedly looked at those numbers, wisely discounted that "approval" in comparision to the then-soft economic numbers, and advised her husband: "I say: If you run, you win." She was right. She didn't have to be particularly smart to see the opportunity, just willing to understand and stick to the fundamentals.

The Senator will correctly continue to understand and stick to those fundamentals. If the economy is soft through 2003, she will probably be a very "competitive" candidate, regardless of this poll's discovery that only 20 percent overall and 34 percent of Democrats now want her to run for President in 2004.

Of course, the 20% of a Presidential election remaining after the economic factors are accounted for is plenty of ground on which to win or lose many elections. After being in office for as long as Mr. Bush has been, a President's approval rating normally correlates strongly with how well the economy is currently performing. But Mr. Bush - like Gorge H.W. Bush - has approval ratings unusually colored by foreign affairs, which dwindle in significance when the question of reelection comes up. Here, Mr. Bush has some advantage over his father in that following the Gulf War, the foreign affairs that had boosted George H. W. Bush's standing essentially dwindled to a mere afterglow of a job well done in the past. But the war on terror, national security considerations and their associated issues - including the status of Israel - will continue to be significant well beyond 2004.

UPDATE: David Weigel adds intelligent perspective.

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