Presidential Race Tied as Americans Shift on Iraq and Economy

by Frank Newport

Majority now say war in Iraq was mistake

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- The latest Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll reflects attitude changes among Americans on both Iraq and the economy. The public has become significantly more likely to say that the war in Iraq was a mistake, while on the domestic front, President George W. Bush's job approval rating on handling the economy has grown more positive.

On other issues, there has been little change. Bush is seen as being able to do a better job than presumptive Democratic candidate John Kerry on terrorism, Kerry beats Bush on the economy, and the two candidates are tied when Americans are asked who would better handle the situation in Iraq.

All in all, the race for president is now statistically tied, marking a slight improvement for Bush over the last several weeks, even though Bush's overall job approval rating, 48%, is virtually the same as Gallup has measured for several months.

Iraq

Fifty-four percent of Americans now say that the United States made a mistake in sending troops to Iraq, marking the first time since the war in that country began that a majority have held this negative view. 

This trend is important because it allows some comparability to the Vietnam War, during which Gallup consistently asked this same "mistake" question. In the early stages of that war, in late August and early September 1965, only 24% said that the United States had made a mistake in sending troops to that country. That percentage slowly rose over the next several years, and by August 1968, the tide turned and 53% said that Vietnam had been a mistake.

Gallup has asked this same question about Iraq nine times since March 2003. The previous high "mistake" percentage was 44% in May 2004. The current reading marks a major change from as recently as the June 3-6 poll, in which 41% said that the war was a mistake, and 58% said it was not.

Another Gallup measure on the Iraq war, "All in all, do you think it was worth going to war in Iraq, or not," has been more consistently negative in recent months. Although as many as 76% of Americans said that the Iraq war was worth it in April 2003, by May 2004, a majority said that it was not worth it. In the current poll, 46% say the war was worth it, while 51% say it was not.

It is highly likely that the increase in terrorism in recent months is a factor in this change in attitudes toward Iraq. Fifty-five percent of Americans in the current poll say that the war with Iraq has made the United States less safe from terrorism, marking a significant shift from last December (just after the capture of Saddam Hussein), when a majority said that the war had made the United States safer from terrorism. 

Economy, Iraq, and Terrorism

The current poll included a series of measures on the public's views of the two major candidates on three key issues: the economy, Iraq, and terrorism.

Economy

There is positive news in the latest poll for Bush in relationship to the public's view of the economy. The president's approval rating on handling the economy has gone from 41% across the last three polls to 47% in the June 21-23 poll. At the same time, the percentage of Americans who disapprove of his handling of the economy has dropped from 58% to 50%. That's the lowest disapproval rating for Bush on the economy since late January of this year.

In historical context, this economic rating puts Bush close to the economic ratings Bill Clinton received at this point in 1996 -- 49% -- and much better than the position of his father in 1992, when the elder Bush's approval rating on the economy was right around the 20% level.

At the same time, in a somewhat contradictory fashion, Kerry still has a significant lead over Bush when Americans are asked who would better handle the economy, and this has not changed from early May.

Next, regardless of which presidential candidate you support, please tell me if you think John Kerry or George W. Bush would better handle each of the following issues.  How about -- [RANDOM ORDER]?

The economy

 

Kerry

Bush

SAME (vol.)

No opinion

 

%

%

%

%

2004 Jun 21-23 ^

53

40

1

6

 

 

 

 

 

2004 May 7-9 ^

54

40

1

5

2004 Mar 5-7

50

42

2

6

 

^ Asked of half sample.

Iraq

Bush's job approval rating for handling the situation in Iraq remains stable but low, at 42%. That's essentially what he has received across four polls conducted since early May.

Bush and Kerry are tied when Americans are asked which candidate can do the better job of handling the situation in Iraq, little changed from early May.

Next, regardless of which presidential candidate you support, please tell me if you think John Kerry or George W. Bush would better handle each of the following issues.  How about -- [RANDOM ORDER]?

The situation in Iraq

 

Kerry

Bush

SAME (vol.)

No opinion

 

%

%

%

%

2004 Jun 21-23 ^

46

47

1

6

 

 

 

 

 

2004 May 7-9 ^

45

48

1

6

2004 Mar 5-7

39

54

2

5

 

^ Asked of half sample.

Terrorism

There has been no significant change in Bush's position on his handling of terrorism, either in terms of his overall approval rating, or in terms of his positioning on terrorism against Kerry. Bush gets a 54% approval rating on handling terrorism, continuing to make it a relative area of strength. In early June, he received a 56% approval rating on terrorism and 54% and 52% in two polls conducted in May. All of these numbers are much lower than the ratings he received earlier this year and in 2003.

Bush maintains a 14-point lead over Kerry when Americans are asked which of the two men can do the best job handling terrorism -- essentially unchanged from May.

Next, regardless of which presidential candidate you support, please tell me if you think John Kerry or George W. Bush would better handle each of the following issues.  How about -- [RANDOM ORDER]?

Terrorism

 

Kerry

Bush

SAME (vol.)

No opinion

 

%

%

%

%

2004 Jun 21-23 ^

40

54

1

5

 

 

 

 

 

2004 May 7-9 ^

38

55

1

6

2004 Mar 5-7

33

60

2

5

 

^ Asked of half sample.

Overall Job Approval Rating

Despite the changes in attitudes on Iraq and Bush's handling of the economy, the president's job approval rating in the June 21-23 Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll is 48%, virtually unchanged from his ratings in the last four polls extending back to early May. Indeed, Bush's job approval rating has been within a narrow range of 46% to 53% going all the way back to mid-January, and has averaged 50% across the 15 polls conducted from mid-January to the late June poll. In short, despite everything that has happened in American politics over the last five months, the public's views of the president have remained remarkably consistent.

All of this puts Bush in an essentially "gray zone" as far as historical context is concerned. His job approval rating certainly is not as low as was the case for the two most recent presidents who were defeated in their bids for re-election: George H.W. Bush (38% in late June 1992) and Jimmy Carter (31% in late June 1980). At the same time, Bush's job approval is below the readings of the five presidents who were re-elected -- Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Clinton -- in June of their election years. The current president's job approval rating most closely resembles that of Gerald Ford in 1976 (45% in June of that year), and it will be remembered that Ford went on to a close two-point loss to Carter in November.

Trial Heat

Bush's currently in-the-middle positioning in the presidential race is underscored by the results of the poll's trial heat balloting. Bush and Kerry are essentially tied for the lead among likely voters both in a two-way matchup and in a three-way matchup including Ralph Nader. Bush and Kerry have been relatively close in every Gallup Poll conducted since March.

Favorability Ratings

Kerry now has a more favorable image in the eyes of the American public than does Bush. Fifty-eight percent of Americans have a favorable image of Kerry (35% unfavorable, with 7% having no opinion), compared with 53% who have a favorable image of Bush (with 45% unfavorable and only 2% with no opinion). 

When one takes into account the net difference between favorable and unfavorable opinions, Kerry looks even better, with a net +23 rating, compared with Bush's net +8 rating.

The Bush campaign spent roughly $80 million on advertising across the last several months, largely in an avowed attempt to cast Kerry in an unfavorable light as his image was being developed in the minds of many Americans who did not know much about him before this year. Did it make a difference?

Kerry does now have a slightly less favorable image than he did in mid-February. He had a 60% favorable and 26% unfavorable rating at that point, or a net +34, slightly higher than his current +23. On the other hand, Kerry's image in March and April was actually worse than it is now, suggesting that for whatever reason, Kerry is now better situated than he has been in recent months.

Survey Methods

These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,000 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted June 3-6, 2004. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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