A riddle wrapped in an enigma

Posted: May 03, 2007 12:01 AM
A riddle wrapped in an enigma

If a strong majority of Americans are opposed to the Iraq war, which no one disputes, then why are the voters evenly divided between the Republican and Democratic presidential front-runners?

One would think that mounting opposition to the war and President Bush's handling of it would be driving the presidential polls, and that all of the top Republican contenders -- who fiercely back the war -- would be struggling to overcome lopsided Democratic support.

But that's not the case at all. Not only do polling numbers show the GOP's candidates are quite competitive against the Democrats, they are leading them in some surveys.

This is the inherent political contradiction that appears to be shaping up nearly 18 months before the 2008 presidential election takes place. Bush's approval polls are in the 30s, owing largely to the war, and voters rate the Democratic Party much more favorably than the Republicans (52 percent to 40 percent in the Gallup Poll). But neither party appears to have an advantage in the race for the White House.

This is a troubling early-warning sign for the Democrats and for the candidates who have risen to the top of their list of prospective nominees. "A major cautionary note for the Democrats at this point in the election cycle is the disparity between Americans' partisan preferences for the next president in the abstract and their preferences between specific candidates being offered up to the voters," Gallup said in an analysis last week.

When asked, for example, to choose between the two front-runners, former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, voters are split right down the middle. In some surveys, like a recent USA Today/Gallup Poll, Giuliani led Clinton 51 percent to 46 percent.

Head-to-head national matchups between other front-runner candidates by other independent polling firms reported similar results. For instance, Arizona Sen. John McCain, a fire-breathing war supporter, was tied with Sen. Barack Obama in a recent Time poll. And McCain was in a statistical dead heat with Clinton in a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll.

All of this opens up an unexpected opportunity for the Republicans that few political analysts envisioned at the start of the two-year election cycle and raises this possibility: The war in and of itself may not be enough to return the Democrats to power.

"It is an apparent contradiction. The explanation lies in the difference between the approval and disapproval of one president versus a comparison of two different candidates," said Georgia Republican pollster Whit Ayres.

"A lot of people who disapprove of both the war in Iraq and President Bush's handling of it do not necessarily want Hillary or a Democrat as president. That is particularly true of independents who voted overwhelmingly for Democrats for Congress in the 2006 election, but they split fairly evenly when the choice is Rudy or Hillary," Ayres told me.

A major reason why the electorate's anti-Republican mood does not appear to be hurting the front-runner standing of Giuliani, or McCain who trails him in the polls, is that "they have a personal favorability image that is not connected to their being Republicans," said Republican pollster Bill McInturff at Public Opinion Strategies.

But McInturff, who polls for the McCain campaign, cautions that "their personal appeal does not do anything to mitigate the problems facing the Republicans" arising from the war.

Still, he says Clinton faces big obstacles, too, as a candidate whose political brand "is perceived as being very left of center and perhaps out of the American mainstream on important social issues.

"She has a net negative favorability rating among white voters and substantial negative ratings among white men," he said. "Fifty-eight percent perceive her to be a liberal, which is roughly three times the number of people in the country who identify themselves as liberals."

The latest numbers in pivotal electoral swing states also tell us a lot more about the Democrats' problems at their party's base. Giuliani was leading all of their front-runners in Ohio and Pennsylvania, both of which went Democratic last year, and in Florida, according to recent Quinnipiac polls.

Even in Clinton's adopted state of New York, where you would think she'd be invincible, her favorability ratings fell to an anemic 50 percent, a Siena Research Institute poll of registered state voters said this week.

All of this could change dramatically in the months to come should the war grow more potent as an issue, especially if Bush's latest surge fails to reduce the violence in Iraq and stabilize the al-Maliki government.

"If Americans are still dying in Iraq in October 2008, it will dominate the elections. If the war has wound down somewhat by then, the voters will focus more on other issues and the characteristics of the candidates, and that works to the Republicans' advantage," Ayres said.