When George W. Bush took the oath of office in January 2001 he began his presidency with a strategy that defied history. In short, together with his closest advisor and strategic architect, Karl Rove, this new president, elected with less than half the popular vote, would not seek to build a governing a majority based on moving to the political center to attract moderate voters. Instead, he would work overtime to shore up his conservative base and try to attract additional values voters who did not turn out to vote in the 2000 election.
The strategy seemed strange from the outset. He appeared in many ways purposely going out of his way to alienate those very voters who comprise the “vital center” whose support is traditionally viewed as essential for effective governing. So the early Bush administration rescinded environmental orders by his predecessor that regulated arsenic levels in drinking water and carbon dioxide emissions in the air. He withheld money earmarked for non-government organizations which advocated the use of contraception for poor women. His Vice-President held secret meetings with energy companies in developing an agenda and oil-company friendly energy policy.
By September 2001, this president who came to office with 48% of the vote stood with a 49% positive job rating and a 50% negative rating.
The events of September 11 changed things. Mr. Bush, who rose to the occasion with genuine concern and appropriate toughness, saw his polling numbers soar to the high eighties in polls, even higher in the polls of others. But again, he refused to spend this considerable political capital in building a genuine governing majority. In effect, his presidency could most aptly be likened to a metaphor of a bouncing rubber ball, which receives its highest (and longest lasting) bounce initially, with each subsequent bounce decreasing in height and longevity.
By the onset of bombing of Baghdad, the president’s number were only in the mid-fifties but rose again in the early days of “shock and awe” to 69%. But by the end of May, he was back down to 50% and would stay there for six months.
With the December 15, 2003 capture of Saddam Hussein, Mr. Bush would get another bump to the mid-fifties, but then again would slip back down to the high forties, low fifties.
Fortunately, his Democratic opponent, John Kerry, would never rise beyond 48% support in the polls. In re-examining Mr. Kerry’s support levels throughout 2004, they resemble the EKG of a dead man – 48% in March, 48% before the Democratic National Convention in July, 48% after the convention, 48% by Labor Day, and 48% on election day. A straight line from beginning to end. Kerry never bonded with his constituency or moderates who were looking for an end of the war in Iraq. He never gave them either a plan for ending the war nor a compelling persona to which they could relate.
Mr. Bush won with 50.8% of the vote on the same day that majorities gave him a negative job performance rating, said he did not deserve to be re-elected, and saw the country headed on the wrong track. The victory was an historical anomaly, though Messrs. Bush and Rove did indeed get an additional number of rural and conservative voters out to the polls.
Ironically, Mr. Bush wanted his presidency to be all about the war in Iraq. Aside from his motives for going to war, the popularity of his position in fighting the war on terrorism was seen as pulling up the increasingly negative numbers who support the war in Iraq. Linking the two would serve the president well.
Instead, the opposite has occurred. The unpopularity of the war in Iraq not only is dragging the public’s support for this president’s fight in the war on terrorism – now only in the high forties where it was 64% when he was re-elected – but is also causing a drag on everything the President says and does. Mr. Bush is no longer seen as truthful and, and in a public mood that can best be seen as throwing the baby out with the bath water, the public is piling it on, giving the president low marks in every category we have tested – the war, foreign policy, the economy, health care, protecting social security, and even gas prices (which the public understands is something a president cannot control).
And in our recent year end poll, we find that the president not only gets low marks from Democrats (11%) and Independents (24%), but has now lost support from key groups he needed in his re-election: married voters, gun owners, investors, Catholics, and voters in the so-called Red States (those that he carried in 2004). In fact, Mr. Bush gets only a 52% positive rating among Born-Again Christians and only 71% among conservative, much lower numbers than he needed to win and needs to govern effectively.
Polls taken near the end of the year show an improvement for Mr. Bush, but the uptick reflects only that he is regaining the support from a portion of his political base that had been disenchanted.
Barring anything unforeseen, this president will most likely not see the positive side of 50% again. He banked his presidency and his political capital on the war in Iraq and is now at the mercy of things on the ground that are beyond his control.
In short, Mr. Bush appears to have won many political battles along the way, but he may end up losing the war, both figuratively and literally, as his presidency behaves like that rubber ball which, at the mercy of gravity, eventually, inevitably runs out of bounces and rolls down the gutter.