Bush's Hail Mary

The only events that have (temporarily) stopped the constant erosion of Bush's popularity have been 9/11, the Iraq war and the capture of Saddam. He'd better hope he finds Osama in October.

Published February 9, 2004 5:42PM (EST)

George W. Bush has held office for 36 months. How is he doing politically, and what can we learn from a detached look at the record?

Here's a chart of Bush's job approval rating, as reported by the entire panoply of pollsters -- Newsweek, Fox, ABC-Washington Post, Zogby, CNN-Time, CBS-New York Times, Gallup-CNN, NBC-Wall Street Journal, and Pew -- all thoughtfully collected by PollingReport.com.

First of all, notice how closely the polls track. True, the ABC-Washington Post poll tends to run a little high. Pew and Zogby tend to run a little low. But the range is not large, and all of the polls move in the same direction at the same time. This suggests they are measuring something real. The pollsters may be redundant, but they have not been wasting their time.

What is the message of these numbers? One stands out: In his entire first term, only three episodes so far have gained approval for Bush. All were related to terrorism and to war. They were 9/11, the war on Iraq, and the capture of Saddam. Taken together, the five months when Bush gained popularity on these events account for 89 percent of all the variation in the change of Bush's job approval, measured by the average of these polls.

It is not surprising that Bush's State of the Union speech dwelt so heavily on war and terror.

But equally, consider what has happened in the other 32 months. The record is remarkably consistent: In the range of approvals above 48 percent or so -- that is, among voters who did not vote for him in 2000 -- Bush loses support, month after month. And he does so at what is nearly a constant rate. Tick, tock.

Measured by a number of different techniques (including regression analysis), Bush's monthly loss of approval appears to be a little less than 1.6 percentage points -- every month, on average. And the variation around that average (standard error) is quite small: less than one-fourth of that value. That means that in 95 percent of the cases, the decline is between 0.9 and 2.3 percent per month. Tick, tock.

It seems that Bush has done nothing to win the enduring allegiance of voters who did not already support him in 2000. After each rallying event, some give up immediately. Others take longer. But the trend is consistent: Gains accrued in crisis decay over time.

One might say that this is a judgment about character, a perception of who Bush is and what interests he serves. But it does not seem to matter what Bush says or does. Also, so far -- though of course this could change -- no effect from better economic news can be found. Tick, tock.

We cannot say that the erosion will continue as Bush's approval slips into "red" territory -- below the 48 percent or so who supported him to begin with. Indeed, there is no evidence that Bush's Republican base has eroded at all. What we can infer, reasonably, is that there is a strong tendency in the electorate to revert, over time, to the sharp and narrow division of the last election. Tick, tock.

The numbers tell us one other thing: 9/11 was worth 36 points of approval over two months. The Iraq war was worth a bit over 12 points, again over two months. The capture of Saddam was worth five points in one month. In each case, we add the actual gain to the 1.6 points Bush would have otherwise lost, to read out the difference that the particular event made.

So, let's assume (favorably for Bush) that Bush's approval slide stops entirely at 48 percent. How much of a boost will he need to achieve a safe 53 percent or so by Election Day?

Clearly, another 9/11, arriving anytime this year, would guarantee the election. But 9/11, let us hope, was a one-time event. It is not obvious that a second attack, on a similar or even a larger scale, would have the same political effect. It might turn into a political disaster. In any event, let us suppose that the manufacture of such an atrocity is safely beyond the pale.

Theoretically, another war is within the administration's power to wage or not to wage. There are well-known targets: Syria and North Korea. If a war against either one were launched in August, then on the Iraqi model Bush would be up about 10 points in November.

But a second war seems remote just now. Unlike Iraq, North Korea may well have the bomb -- an authentic deterrent. Unlike Iraq, Syria is not seriously thought by anyone to pose a threat to the United States. The propaganda buildup isn't there; the weapons-of-mass-destruction trick will not work twice. Bush would have no allies on such a mission; it is impossible to imagine U.N. support. And U.S. military forces remain more heavily stretched by the Iraqi occupation than the war planners hoped they would be. Even if they were nearly out by June -- which is doubtful -- it is hard to imagine their being ready to fight again in August.

What if on the other hand there is peace: an Iraqi government in place and our troops come home, safe and sound, over the summer? That could happen, and it might help Bush out. But the timing is delicate. Do it too early and the effect will wear off by October. Do it too late and the risk is that the fedayeen or the Shiites will spoil the endgame.

So what does that leave? Another Saddam. And, of course, he is conveniently out there. If the capture of Osama bin Laden is worth the same as the capture of Saddam, the answer to Bush's electoral dilemma is plain: Get Osama in October.

Like all statistical analyses, this one is no better than its assumptions. We have assumed that Bush will bottom out at 48 percent, other things being equal. We assume there are no dramatic new events -- such as a war not of our own making, or (say) an assassination attempt against Bush or his challenger. We assume that Osama, even after three years of hiding out (presumably in Pakistan), will be worth as much as Saddam. Of course, if al-Qaida hits us again this year, he might be worth more.

That leaves one question: What price would Bush have to pay -- and to whom -- in order to bring him in, just in the nick of time?

By James K. Galbraith

James K. Galbraith organized a conference on the “Crisis in the Eurozone” at the University of Texas at Austin on November 3-4. Papers and presentations can be found at http://tinyurl.com/3kut4k5, along with a video archive of the full meeting.

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2004 Elections 9/11 Osama Bin Laden Polling