WASHINGTON — President Bush's overwhelming strength among white men looms as a central obstacle between Democrats and the White House as 2004 approaches.
In an election season heavily shaped by terrorism and national security, several recent polls suggest Bush could dominate white male voters as thoroughly as Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush did during their three successive presidential victories in the 1980s.
"Clearly, it is where the Democrats are going to have their biggest difficulty," said Ruy Teixeira, a public opinion analyst at the Century Foundation, a liberal think tank.
In the modern political era, Democrats never expect to carry white men, who reliably tilt Republican. But the emerging threat to Democrats in 2004 is that Bush will win white men so decisively that the party can't overcome his advantage with other voter groups that lean in their direction, such as minorities and college-educated white women.
Analysts in both parties agree that Bush is benefiting among white men from his aggressive use of force against terrorism and his alternately folksy and blunt "bring 'em on" personal style. Some senior strategists on both sides believe the risk to Democrats with white men could increase if the party nominates Howard Dean, whose opposition to the war, liberal positions on social issues and buttoned-down persona create clear contrasts for Bush.
"That's the best situation for us, and the worst situation for them, with this group," said David Winston, a Republican pollster.
White men compose just under 40% of the electorate, with white women just over 40%, and minorities composing the rest.
White men have given Democrats problems in presidential elections for decades. Since the 1970s, Democrats have won when they kept the Republican advantage within sight and lost when they didn't.
"It's a damage minimization strategy," Teixeira said. "If it's too much of a landslide with white men, it just creates a hole you have to dig out of."
But just reaching that minimal standard of support hasn't been easy for Democratic nominees. Republican incumbents Richard Nixon in 1972 and Ronald Reagan in 1984 carried white men by 35 percentage points en route to landslide reelections, according to network exit polls.
In 1988, George H.W. Bush beat Democrat Michael S. Dukakis by 27 percentage points among white men, the same advantage Reagan enjoyed over Jimmy Carter in 1980.
During the 1990s, Bill Clinton significantly reduced those margins, losing white men by just 3 percentage points in 1992 and 11 points in 1996, according to exit polls. But Clinton didn't win a much higher percentage of the white male vote than Carter, Mondale and Dukakis did; the GOP margins fell in the 1990s because independent candidate Ross Perot siphoned away so many white men from Bush in 1992 and Bob Dole in 1996.
With Perot off the ballot in 2000, the Republican advantage among white men ballooned again, as Bush carried them by 24 percentage points over Al Gore. That margin was just small enough to allow Gore to narrowly edge Bush in the popular vote by running strongly with other groups.
But now leading strategists in both parties say Bush has the potential to run even better with white men in 2004 -- which could create a deficit too great for Democrats to overcome.
"I don't know if it can get back to the [Reagan] level, but he does have the potential of widening the margin from 2000," said Matthew Dowd, the polling director for Bush's campaign.
Stanley B. Greenberg, the pollster for Gore in 2000 and Clinton in 1992, agreed. "Younger, married white men are disastrously, overwhelmingly Republican," he said. "They are trending more Republican over time. Everything about George Bush speaks to them."
Recent polls underscore the challenge for Democrats with white men. In an ABC/Washington Post survey released last week, white men preferred Bush over an unnamed Democrat in 2004 by 62% to 29%, a head-turning 33-point margin; by contrast, white women gave Bush just a 10-point lead.
Similarly, a Pew Research Center for the People and the Press poll this month found Bush leading an unnamed Democrat by 30 points among white men and enjoying a 68% approval rating with the group.
Democrats note these gaudy numbers reflect the immediate boost Bush is receiving with all groups after the capture of Saddam Hussein this month. But even in September and October, when Pew showed the country divided exactly in half between Bush and a Democrat for 2004, and white women narrowly preferring a Democrat, the president still led among white men by 27 percentage points.
Dowd, the polling director for the president's campaign, said those numbers show that Bush is "solidifying" the support from white men he had against Gore.
"In 2000, he obviously did extremely well, and now on things they care about, these people have seen he's done what they hoped he would," Dowd said. "It is just an affirmation of what they thought they believed about him in 2000."