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It ain’t over by a long shot

By Doug Thompson
July 21, 2006

Although President George W. Bush’s poll numbers continue to inch back upward after record lows, his dismal job approval ratings are not encouraging to Republicans and still give Democrats hope for recapturing control of Congress in the November midterm elections. But four months is an eternity in politics.

Democratic opposition to Bush and Republicans remains strong while the President’s numbers climb slightly among independents and less-than-hoped for among Republicans.

Political analyst Charlie Cook says the latest trends can’t be called good news for the GOP.

“Three national polls in a row indicate that President Bush’s job-approval rating has climbed back to 40 percent or slightly higher,” Cook says in his latest analysis. “That’s still dangerous territory for his party in a midterm election year, but not as treacherous as the low-to-mid-30s, where Bush was in early and mid-May.”

Cook continues:

But where has Bush gained ground? His standing among self-identified Democrats hasn’t changed much. In January and February, they gave him approval ratings averaging just 9.8 percent. In March and April, that average ticked up to 10.2 percent, then dropped to 8 percent in May before edging back up to 9.3 percent for June and July. That isn’t a lot of fluctuation. So, Democrats aren’t the ones who have boosted Bush’s popularity in recent weeks.

Among independents, Bush’s approval rating was 31.5 percent in January and February, then dropped to 25 percent in March and April, and fell another half point in May before rising to 30.8 percent in June and July — almost back to what it was in the first two months of the year.

The biggest swings have occurred among Republicans. In January and February, Bush’s approval averaged 83.3 percent among members of his party, then dropped 6.1 points in March and April polling, to 77.2 percent. In May, his GOP approval dropped again — to 69 percent — then popped back up by 9.5 percentage points in June and early July, to 78.5 percent. The variance between the president’s high at the beginning of the year and his valley in May is a whopping 14.3 percent — far greater than his 6.5-point variance among independents and 2.2-point shift among Democrats.

While, clearly, the greatest fluctuation in Bush’s support was among his fellow Republicans and his recovery is due to their returning to the fold, he is still 4.8 points lower among Republicans (in the June and July polling) than he was in January and February.

It doesn’t take a degree in political science to know that if you can’t hold on to your base you can’t win elections. Bush is still in trouble with his base and so are those Republicans who held on to his failing issues for so long.

Continues Cook:

Although these facts would seem to justify the focus-on-the-base strategy that many Republicans have been advocating in recent months, GOP pollsters privately say that the ground Bush needs to recover is among moderate, not conservative, Republicans. They say that the conservatives, whose focus tends to be on social and cultural issues, are back, and that moderate Republicans, who are more interested in economic issues than cultural ones, are the voters whom Bush needs to court. Continuing to emphasize cultural issues might even be counterproductive, the pollsters warn.

University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato says the outlook is grim for Republicans but not hopeless…at least not yet.

“It is remarkable at this point in the game that Republicans cannot claim to have a better than even shot of taking over a single Democratic district,” he says.

Sabato adds that while momentum is still on the Democrats’ side the Republicans still have a chance to salvage something from the predicted massacre.

“To the extent that a mammoth, late-breaking October wave for Democrats could put even the congressional careers of well-established Republican incumbents in jeopardy, all clues point to GOP efforts to buy as much “flood insurance” as possible,” Sabato says. “Vice President Dick Cheney was dispatched to western Kentucky to boost the campaign coffers of six-term GOP Rep. Ron Lewis, and Seattle-area GOP Rep. Dave Reichert was the recent beneficiary of a fundraising stop by President Bush. Such events are indicative of the strong desire on the part of Republicans to brace for a major wave by moving potentially vulnerable incumbents to higher and safer ground before the fall.”

Bottom line: We still have four months to go and a lot of things can happen between now and November. Democrats still need to come up with a program that is based on more than “bash Bush” and Republicans have got to motivate more than the extreme right wing of their base.

It ain’t over ’till somebody sings and, at this point, it could be a fat elephant or a pot-bellied donkey.