Bush's polls and the law of gravity

The luster has begun to wear on President Bush's post-Sept. 11 armor.

Shortly after the shocking attacks of that day, Mr. Bush's positive job-performance rating rose to a stunning 86 percent. Shortly before, he had been wallowing in mediocrity with a 50 percent positive rating and a 49 percent negative.

It was not hard to see then, nor is it hard to see now, that Americans were rallying around their president and flag, and bonding with each other. But in a series of polls we conducted early in 2002, we discovered that the post-Sept. 11 bounce would go only so far.

We asked voters in January, after they gave him a still impressive 75 percent approval rating, how they would view the president if the war on terrorism was won but there was no patients' bill of rights. His positive rating went down to 46 percent.

It dropped to 37 percent with the same premise and no Social Security reform.

At the time, it became clear that the president's wartime support would not last forever. He has never been very popular on domestic issues and as the 2002 midterm campaign draws closer and domestic issues like healthcare, the economy, and Social Security reform dominate campaign discourse, some of the president's popularity could wane.

Thus, last week the president dropped to a still-high 62 percent job rating – his lowest since September. This is a 7-point drop from two weeks earlier and a 14-point loss from six weeks earlier. (While other polls still show Bush with a 70-plus rating, ours uses a different scale – Excellent and Good are seen as a positive rating, while Fair and Poor are negative. I, of course, did not invent this scale and I find it more useful than the simple Approve-Disapprove scale, which leaves out some of the mushy negative feelings that a "Fair" rating represents).

The president is now hurt by corporate scandals and the public's sense that the Republican Party is the party of big business. In our latest poll, 51 percent told us they are less likely to invest in the stock market because of the recent scandals. One in 3 (31 percent) told us that financially they are doing worse than they were a year ago; 32 percent said they are worse off than they were two years ago.

With 66 percent of likely voters investing in 401(k) plans and IRAs, a decline in the stock market is no esoteric thing. When we polled, July 12 through 15, this group had just received their quarterly stock portfolio reports. It wasn't pretty, and voter confidence in both the economy and the market dipped as well.

Since June, in a stunning turnaround, the Democrats are seen as doing a better job of handling the economy – a previous Republican strength.

In short, things are very different from several months ago. The economy is now the top issue – edging out the war on terrorism. Democratic voters are coming home to the Democrats. While they're still supporting Bush on the war, they're dropping like flies from his positive job-approval column.

This was all predictable. In many ways, it is the law of gravity at work. It also means that the president wasted much of his first year appealing to the Republican right with tax cuts, reduction in federal standards on arsenic in water and carbon dioxide emissions, and an energy plan seen as favorable to oil companies.

This risky strategy not only alienated centrist and swing voters at a time when Bush needed to build his political capital into a governing majority, it also denied him domestic friends when he would most need them – in time for the 2002 election.

While the president won the hearts and minds of all Americans with his magnificent speech on Sept. 20, the war has now been relegated to the back pages of the newspapers. Even when the president's numbers were in the 80s, it did not give congressional Republicans – anxious about holding onto their slim House of Representatives majority – any huge boost in polls.

I believe Bush's numbers will go down about 6 or 7 points more – again, a factor of gravity as Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents move from their Good rating to a Fair rating.

A president with a mid-50s job rating will only make the Republicans' efforts more difficult, especially as the Democrats rail away on the economy, prescription drugs, and Social Security.

• John Zogby is an independent pollster.

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