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Jewish World Review Jan. 23, 2003 / 20 Shevat, 5763

Matt Towery

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Consumer Reports


Are the current round of presidential polls disingenuous?


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Currently, it appears Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., are the early frontrunners among Democrats who hope to challenge President George W. Bush in 2004, according to the latest InsiderAdvantage poll.

Even so, the president remains in good standing with the American public, despite his recent slip in job approval ratings.

Numbers can deceive, and that goes for polling numbers too. In recent weeks, scattered polls have suggested Bush's approval rating has dropped. In one poll, the percentage of those who would vote to re-elect Bush was about 43 percent. But in an early installment of what will be a monthly presidential poll conducted for InsiderAdvantage, Bush last week led all of his potential opponents, with 48 percent of the vote for Bush, and 33 percent for all Democratic challengers combined. The poll surveyed 1,000 respondents and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent.

Many political pundits believe that any "re-elect" percentage under 50 suggests political vulnerability for incumbents. But the InsiderAdvantage poll suggests such logic is sometimes flawed, a view shared by several opinion experts.

The ongoing InsiderAdvantage poll is a survey of eligible voters. Why this approach? Because with the election still two years away, it's impossible to determine who will or won't be a "likely voter" in the presidential contest. Many voters will drop off the registration rolls. Others will register between now and the election. So the InsiderAdvantage survey arguably is a better barometer of where the candidates are today.

With that in mind, there is no clear-cut leader on the Democratic side. The survey shows that among the most likely candidates to date, Lieberman is leading with 20 percent, followed by Gephardt with 13 percent. Sens. John Edwards, D-N.C., and John Kerry, D-Mass., were both at 10 percent, with other announced or probable candidates receiving less than 10 percent.

Regarding Bush's re-elect number, let's defer to the judgment of JWR's Michael Barone, senior writer for U.S. News & World Report, who has a world of experience with political polling. Just last week, he said in The Washington Post's Media Notes that only strong partisans stand firm right now in their declarations about whether to re-elect incumbents. Barone said recent elections have swept away the old assumption that incumbents must be at or above 50 percent in their re-elect number in order to end up winning.

Consider the November re-election of President Bush's brother Jeb as governor of Florida. An InsiderAdvantage poll taken almost a month before Florida's Democratic gubernatorial primary showed Gov. Bush under the 50 percent mark when paired against an unknown Democratic challenger, attorney Bill McBride. McBride subsequently pulled an upset primary victory over former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, but was trounced by Bush in the general election as the Democrat's campaign collapsed in the final days.

Even though President Bush's political "blood pressure" -- his approval rating -- has dropped over the past month, he still looks to be driving the train of candidates with still about a year and a half to go.

Any number of issues could tighten the race, of course. With both Iraq and North Korea dancing about nervously on the world's diplomatic radar screens, and with the U.S. and world economies still unsettled and somewhat directionless, the chances for an upward or downward popularity spike for Bush are many and varied.

But Bush's ratings show another positive. Like his brother in Florida, the president enjoys virtually identical support from men and women. Given that Republicans traditionally get much less support from women than men, this is nothing shy of amazing.

Among the leading Democrats in this early survey, only John Edwards was able to win an equal amount of support from voters of each sex. For Democrats, capturing more votes from men is critical to having any chance in 2004. Many in the Democratic Party have described Edwards as they did McBride last year -- a fresh face who can appeal to moderates. But his fresh face aside, McBride proved unable to offer an appealing alternative to the GOP incumbent, either in substance or style.

Early promoters of Edwards should take note of McBride's electoral fate. Fresh faces aren't necessarily what's needed to beat strong incumbents. And while some polls show Edwards with a larger percentage of support than the InsiderAdvantage poll shows, this is in fact doubtful, given his lack of nationwide name identification.

As of this month, President Bush appears stronger than many think. And the concept that John Edwards will rise above better-known names such as Joe Lieberman and Richard Gephardt remains to be seen.

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© 2001, Creators Syndicate