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Presidential Campaigns May Play Cameo Role

Events outside Bush's and Kerry's direct control are more likely to influence voters.

May 02, 2004|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — No presidential race in modern times has begun earlier, or reached a crescendo as quickly, as the battle between President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry. And yet few presidential contests may pivot more on events that will only unfold closer to election day.

Exactly six months before Americans pick the next president, the campaign is already running at full speed, with massive advertising by each side, fierce exchanges and a barrage of speeches, policy proposals and accusatory e-mails.

But amid all this sound and fury, many strategists in both parties think that "real world" developments in the economy, the struggle against terrorism and the occupation of Iraq are likely to influence the November result more than anything the campaigns do.

"I have never seen a presidential race that is so easy to analyze and so hard to predict, and the reason is that this presidency is at the mercy of ... large events that are substantially outside the control of the administration or anyone else," said Bill Galston, a former aide to President Clinton.

In part, events loom so large because it may take so little to tip the balance between Bush and Kerry. At the six-month milepost, the country is divided almost exactly in half on Bush, with his approval rating around the 50% mark that historically has separated the presidents who won a second term from those who didn't.

"The thing that makes this so hard to predict is that [Bush] is really on the cusp," said Alan I. Abramowitz, a professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta, who developed a model for predicting presidential results. "If he goes up a few points in approval, it is going to look a lot better for him; if he drops down below 50%, he is really going to be in trouble. If he stays where he is, I think we are going to have another really close election."

Abramowitz and other experts focus so intently on Bush's standing because reelection campaigns traditionally hinge more on assessments of the incumbent than the challenger. And based on the usual indicators, Bush occupies an ambiguous space between the five incumbent presidents who won new terms since 1956 and the three who lost, including his father, George H.W. Bush.

The younger Bush can point to a higher approval rating and better numbers on key economic measures than the three losing presidents, especially his father in 1992 and President Carter in 1980.

But by late spring of the election year, each of the last five incumbents who won had approval ratings higher than Bush enjoys, according to Gallup polls. And none of them faced an electorate polarized so profoundly.

In such an uncertain environment, confidence and concern mix on both sides. With the economy stirring, Republican pollster Bill McInturff sees Bush edging closer in his overall standing to the presidents who won than to those who lost. "Bush is neither fish nor fowl, but he's more fish -- closer to the winners -- than he is fowl," he said.

Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg, however, sees Bush teetering on the brink. "Across a broad range of questions, the number 49% hangs over him," Greenberg said. "As an incumbent, [he's] just at the edge of electability."

Presidential elections, like baseball teams, sometimes look very different in the fall than in the spring, especially when Americans are ambivalent about the incumbent. At this point in 1980, Carter led challenger Ronald Reagan in Gallup polls; Reagan eventually won decisively. At this point in 1992, several polls showed Clinton running third behind the elder Bush and independent Ross Perot; Clinton ultimately won easily.

But by now, the path of recent presidents who won a second term had diverged from those who didn't. Approval ratings for Carter in 1980 and the elder Bush in 1992 had dropped below 45% by early May, en route to further declines. In 1976, President Ford had slipped just below 50% in approval by midspring -- where he remained through early summer en route to his narrow defeat by Carter.

By contrast, the five presidents who won second terms since 1956 all received positive ratings on their job performance from most Americans at this point.

Eisenhower in 1956 and Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 scored stratospheric ratings of about 70%. Nixon in 1972, Reagan in 1984 and Clinton in 1996 were in situations more akin to Bush's today, with approval ratings a little more than 50% through midspring. Bush's rating stood at 52% in the latest Gallup poll, and ranged from 46% to 51% in four other surveys released last week.

There's no sign Bush is on track to follow his father and Carter into free-falls, or that he can reach the heights of approval scaled by Eisenhower and Johnson. The more relevant question may be whether Bush will follow Ford's model and remain near the 50% approval level that virtually guarantees a close race, or rise into a comfort zone that provides a clear advantage.

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