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Doubts Create a Voter Split Over Bush

November 20, 2003|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — While most Americans view President Bush as a strong leader and say they like him personally, doubts about his performance and agenda have produced an electorate divided almost in half on whether he deserves a second term, a Times Poll has found.

The survey, coming less than one year before the 2004 election, shows that Americans remain split over Bush along many of the same lines of gender, race and cultural values that separated the country during his razor-thin victory over Democrat Al Gore in 2000.

When the poll asked registered voters whether Bush deserved reelection, 42% said yes and 46% said no, a difference within the survey's margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points. When asked whether they were more likely to support Bush or the Democratic nominee in 2004, voters again lined up in almost equal camps, with the president trailing, 38% to 42%, also within the margin of error.

The survey suggests two distinct tensions in public opinion could shape Bush's political fate.

On one axis, voters appear to be weighing generally positive assessments of his personal characteristics -- from likability and leadership to honesty -- against a more ambivalent view of his policies and their impact on the country.

Along another axis, the poll indicates voters are balancing the first flickers of optimism about the economy against growing anxiety over America's progress in Iraq.

Together, these forces have left Bush in an unstable, though not precarious, position for 2004. His showing against a generic Democrat for 2004 is the same as that of his father, President George H. W. Bush, when the Times asked that question in January 1992. Ten months later, Bill Clinton ousted the elder Bush from the White House.

This Bush, the poll shows, enjoys advantages his father lacked, particularly overwhelming support from his base, traditionally a key to presidential reelection. Eighty-six percent of Republicans say they approve of Bush's performance.

But the poll also shows he has alienated a clear majority of Democrats and raised enough doubts among independents to return the country close to the 50-50 divide that marked the 2000 election.

The Times Poll, supervised by polling director Susan Pinkus, surveyed 1,345 adults from Nov. 15 through 18; included in the survey were 1,144 registered voters. The margin of error for both groups is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The poll finds that Americans have established nuanced judgments of Bush's strengths and weaknesses.

On several personal qualities, Bush scores well. Just over three-fifths of Americans consider him a strong leader; just under three-fifths say they consider him honest and trustworthy.

Those qualities clearly remain central to Bush's appeal for his supporters. "He is impressive; he is a man of integrity," said Christa Snyder, a housewife in Loveland, Ohio, who responded to the poll.

Likewise, Lyle Young, a retired mechanical engineer from Waldport, Ore., emphasized integrity when explaining why he intended to support Bush in 2004. "It seems to me he doesn't play up to the polls. He does what he thinks is best," Young said.

Two-thirds of Americans said they find Bush likable -- including just under three-fifths of Democrats.

But on other personal measures, Bush doesn't fare as well. Asked if Bush understands the problems of people like them, 51% said no and 42% said yes.

Similarly, 51% of Americans said they believed Bush cared mostly about the rich, while 7% said the middle class was his principal concern. (Thirty-seven percent believed he was equally concerned about all income groups.) And the percentage of Americans who believe Bush has a clear idea of where he wants to lead the country fell from 56% in a Times Poll in March to 45% today.

"If he has a plan, it does not include the poor people," said Morene Westfall, an independent from Pearcy, Ark. "We need schools, we need highways, we need all kinds of things. He does not have a plan for that."

The verdict on Bush's performance and policies is equally divided. In contrast to the 68% of respondents who said they liked Bush personally, 46% said they liked his policies; 48% said they disliked those policies.

On the poll's broadest measures of performance, Bush received mixed results. Half of those responding said the country was moving on the wrong track -- a level of discontent that usually signals trouble for the party holding the White House.

Bush's overall approval rating, though, was healthier: 54% of those polled said they approved of his performance as president; 41% disapproved. That's the lowest positive rating he has received in a Times Poll during his presidency, but slightly higher than in recent surveys by other news organizations.

Yet, following the pattern of responses on Bush's personal qualities, the poll shows Americans reaching disparate conclusions about his performance from issue to issue.

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