Too close to call

Posted: Mar 30, 2004 12:00 AM

Each month, InsiderAdvantage surveys likely voters on their thoughts and feelings about two broad issues that dominate the current political arena and the fabric of our daily lives -- the economy and national security. Our most recent survey illustrates how almost equally divided the electorate is on subjects ranging from the presidential election to the future of the stock market.

Many polls query the public's optimism or pessimism on the subjects of "peace and prosperity," but I believe most of them fail to provide a truly accurate measurement of how the American people really feel. How could they do a better job? By asking the questions in a way that makes the subject matter personal to the respondents. How does the subject in question affect their own lives? As an example, look at these two recent questions we asked of registered voters:

1) Currently, are your personal finances getting better, getting worse, or staying about the same?

Better: 23 percent
Worse: 22 percent
About the same: 54 percent
Don't know: 1 percent

2) With regard to national security, are you feeling more secure, less secure, or about the same as you always have?

More secure 22 percent
Less secure 22 percent
About the same 55 percent
Don't know 1 percent

The poll was taken March 18-19 among 500 Americans. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.

Both politically and economically, these numbers suggest complicated times ahead.

On the economic front, the statistical tie between those who feel their finances are getting better and those who feel them getting worse may account for the recent stall in the nation's equities markets. Analysts on Wall Street have been nearly as divided as the public at large on which direction the market may be headed in the coming months and years. The poll suggests a stalemate of sentiment on whether Americans feel good about the future of their own financial situations. And that makes economic forecasting all the more tricky.

From a political standpoint, the poll's results pose a challenge for the Bush campaign. Critical swing voters in this fall's elections -- those who describe themselves as "moderates" in philosophy and as neither Democrats nor Republicans politically -- indicated in double-digit percentages that they are now financially worse off.

Moderates and independents often vote based on pocketbook issues, and this presents fertile ground to John Kerry. Whether he can take advantage of it remains to be seen. To do so, he must square his new economic proposals with his past Senate voting record.

As for national security, the poll's respondents are again virtually even in their assessment of the American status quo. Consider this a confirmation of what many of us have long suspected -- that the post-9/11 world is one in which people's feelings of national and personal security are indivisibly wedded to their sense of economic security.

Sure enough, the moderates and independents in the poll again were the ones feeling uneasy about national security. Note that the poll was taken before the recent brouhaha over former White House terrorism czar Richard Clarke's allegations that the Bush White House was negligent in addressing terrorism before the Attack on America. I would argue that our poll is an accurate read on the nation's lasting sentiments about the subject because the repercussions of the Clark controversy may or may not linger through November. Either way, the public's pulse on the economy and on national security should give the president's re-election team plenty to think about. Jeff Shusterman, our polling associate with The Marketing Workshop, agrees: "The voting public's split opinions of improving or declining personal and financial security in conjunction with one out of four independent and moderate voters now feeling less secure in both arenas leaves the Bush campaign vulnerable on both fronts."

The road to the White House will take many a winding turn before November. And before it returns to the sustained prosperity of the 1990s, the economy will twist and turn some more as well. But for anyone doubting the various 2004 presidential polls that show Bush and Kerry virtually tied -- both nationally and in battleground states -- this survey should provide more verification of their collective validity. Barring something drastic and unforeseen, voters will be deciding the 2004 contest based on how they feel about their bank accounts and their personal safety. At least for now, that makes the race too close to call.