Public Opinion Watch

Covering polls and related articles from the week of March 1-7, 2004

In this edition of Public Opinion Watch:
• Young Voters Lean Strongly Democratic
• Will Nader 2004 Be More Like Nader 2000 or Buchanan 2000?
• More Democrats More United

Young Voters Lean Strongly Democratic

Ipsos/Associated Press poll of 370 registered voters aged 18 to 29 years old for Newsweek, released February 26, 2004 (conducted Febuary 2–17, 2004)

Public Opinion Watch has been arguing for quite some time that young voters are leaning Democratic this year and that the higher youth turnout is in November, the better for the Democrats. Strong supporting evidence for this view is provided by the latest Newsweek “GENext” poll of voters aged 18 to 21 years old.

In this poll, Bush’s approval rating among youth is just 46 percent, down eight points from a month ago. His approval ratings on the economy and “domestic issues like health care, education, the environment and energy” are even worse: 40 percent approval/56 percent disapproval and 39 percent approval/58 percent disapproval, respectively.

Young voters also are convinced strongly that the country is off on the wrong track (58 percent), rather than going in the right direction (40 percent).

And the number saying that they definitely will vote against Bush is up to 47 percent, a 13-point rise from the past month. That compares to a mere 28 percent of young voters who say that they would definitely vote to re-elect him. Moreover, in a direct Kerry-Bush matchup, young voters choose Kerry over Bush by an impressive 15-point margin (56 percent to 41 percent).

The strong pro-Democratic tilt among young people extends to the question of which party they want to see gain control of Congress: by a 13-point margin (50 percent to 37 percent), they prefer the Democrats.

Will Nader 2004 Be More Like Nader 2000 or Buchanan 2000?

Ipsos/Associated Press poll of 771 registered voters, released March 5, 2004 (conducted March 1–3, 2004)

There has been quite a lot of discussion lately about the recent Ipsos-AP poll that showed Nader receiving 6 percent of the vote in a matchup against Kerry and Bush. Obviously, if Nader received support in this range in November it would be very bad news indeed for the Democrats.

But Nader almost certainly will not get that kind of support and he’s unlikely even to match the support he received in 2000. Instead, his fate is more likely to be like that of Pat Buchanan in 2000, who also drew some early support in polls, but would up with very few votes (0.43 percent) because his candidacy had no real constituency or plausible rationale.

Consider these data. In late 1999, when Buchanan, like Nader today, was the only third party candidate being tested in polls, he was drawing anywhere between 5 percent and 10 percent support when matched up against Gore and Bush. Then, in late spring, when horse-race polling resumed and Nader also was included in the matchup, he dropped considerably, but still was drawing 3 to 5 percent support. Of course, by the time the election rolled around, even that support collapsed and he wound up with less than 0.5 percent of the vote.

Obviously, almost all of that early Buchanan support was extremely soft and very easy for Bush to peel away once push came to shove and Republicans who were supporting Buchanan focused on taking back the White House. That’s likely to be Nader’s fate in 2004: he may pull the early 4 percent to 6 percent here and there in polls (though hopefully most polling organizations will choose to exclude this peripheral candidate without a party or likely ballot access in many states from their questions) but that support will be very, very soft, declining as the election gets closer and essentially disappearing on election day. In the end, a candidacy that lacks a distinct constituency or plausible rationale will receive the support level it probably deserves — almost nil.

Actually, another finding from the Ipsos-AP poll is of more political significance than Nader’s 6 percent. Right now, just 35 percent of Americans say the country is going in the right direction, while 60 percent say it is off on the wrong track. That’s down from 44 percent right direction/52 percent wrong track last month and puts Bush in the serious danger zone for incumbents. And this poll was taken before the incredibly bad February jobs report (just 21,000 new jobs), released on March 5.

In short, if Republicans are counting on the Nader vote to get Bush reelected, they seem likely to be disappointed.

More Democrats, More United

Kaiser Family Foundation poll of 1,201 adults, released February 26, 2004 (conducted February 5–8, 2004)

Humphrey Taylor, “Democrats Still Hold Small Lead in Party Identification,” Harris Interactive, February 27, 2004

John Harwood and Jacob Schlesinger, “Kerry Finds Himself in Enviable Position,” Wall Street Journal, March 4, 2004

The Wall Street Journal published an interesting article last week by John Harwood and Jacob Schlesinger titled “Kerry Finds Himself in Enviable Position” with the subtitle “Democrat Begins Big Race with Party Unity, a Positive Image and Lead over Bush in the Polls.” It’s worth reading just to remind yourself how exceptionally well the primary process has worked out for the Democrats.

In the article, Democratic pollster Paul Maslin remarks about the shape Kerry is in at this point: “I don’t think there’s ever been anyone healthier.”

Democratic pollster Geoff Garin adds: “You probably have to go back more than 50 years to find a nominating process less divisive. There is no meaningful group of disaffected Democrats coming out of this process.”

And conservative, but always fair-minded, opinion analyst Karlyn Bowman summarizes: “It is rare that a primary campaign strengthens the nominee. This campaign has clearly done that.”

The article also provides some useful data on where recent presidential races were at similar times in the election year. The most striking datum is from 1992, when Clinton was trailing Bush 50 percent to 44 percent in an early March Gallup poll and losing about one-quarter of Democratic voters to George H.W. Bush. In contrast, Kerry is ahead of the current George Bush 51 percent to 46 percent and is losing only 7 percent of Democratic voters to his Republican opponent.

Party unity obviously makes a big difference.

But it’s not just that Democrats are more united than many thought they’d be — there’s also more of them. This is a trend Public Opinion Watch has written about quite a bit. Significant numbers of voters are rethinking their commitments to the Republicans and switching (or switching back) to being Democrats.

Here are some recent data that confirm the emergence of this trend. According to the Harris Poll, the Democrats averaged a five-point lead on party identification over the course of last year, a two-point gain over 2002. And a recently released Kaiser Family Foundation poll gives the Democrats an eight-point lead in party identification, before leaners are factored in. With leaners factored in, the Democrats have a healthy ten-point lead in party identification, 47 percent to 37 percent.

And here’s a related shocker: in the same poll, 28 percent say that they’re liberals, compared to 35 percent who say that they’re conservatives. Pretty close! Now, this result probably has something to do with the way Kaiser asks the ideology question: “Would you say your views in most political matters are very liberal, somewhat liberal, moderate, somewhat conservative or very conservative?”

Possibly what’s going on here is that being able to say you’re “somewhat liberal” instead of just “liberal” leads a number of moderates who actually are fairly liberal, but are normally afraid liberal really means “very liberal,” to accept the liberal label. Interesting. If this interpretation is correct, it would mean that the moderate category in most polls includes a significant group who might reasonably be termed “closet liberals.”

Ruy Teixeira is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.