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Parsing the Polls: Terrorism and the Midterms

You can imagine White House senior strategist Karl Rove smiling when he saw the front page of USA Today on Tuesday. The headline read "Poll: GOP Up After Terror Arrests" and detailed a rise in President Bush's job approval numbers and a narrowing of the Democratic advantage in the generic ballot since the foiled terrorist plot in Britain.

Rove as well as other administration officials have made clear that they are hoping to turn this election into a referendum on the question of which party is better able to protect Americans from terrorist threats. Rove first elucidated that dynamic in a speech to the Republican National Committee winter meeting way back in January.

"At the core, we are dealing with two parties that have fundamentally different views on national security," Rove said. "Republicans have a post-9/11 worldview and many Democrats have a pre-9/11 worldview. That doesn't make them unpatriotic -- not at all. But it does make them wrong -- deeply and profoundly and consistently wrong."

Will that strategy work as it did in 2002 and -- to a lesser extent -- in 2004?

Let's parse the polls.

The USA Today/Gallup poll seems to validate Republicans' decision to frame the 2006 midterm election around national security/terrorism.

Asked whether they approved of the way Bush was handling terrorism, 55 percent of the sample said they did, while 43 percent said they did not -- a 12 point net approval rating for Bush.

Contrast that with Bush's overall job approval rating in the poll (42 percent approve/54 percent disapprove) and his even more negative ratings on a variety of other issues including "foreign affairs" (39/55), the "situation in the Middle East" (39/56), the economy (39/57), the "problems caused by Hurricane Katrina" (37/56), the "situation in Iraq" (36/61), and energy policy (30/60).

Those results were mirrored in other polls conducted over the past month. In a survey conducted for Time Magazine, 46 percent said they approved of Bush's handling of the global war on terrorism while 48 percent disapproved. Those numbers look a lot better when compared to the dismal 32 percent approve/64 percent disapprove numbers when asked to rate the president's handling of Iraq. His approval numbers were only slightly better on the economy (37/58).

The Post's own poll -- conducted in conjunction with ABC News -- showed much the same. Overall, 40 percent approved of the job Bush was doing while 58 percent diapproved. Bush's best numbers came on his handling of terrorism where 47 percent approved compared to 50 percent who disapproved. On Iraq (36/62), the economy (39/59), and the Middle East (43/50), Bush's numbers were less positive.

The results are more mixed when voters are asked whether they put more trust in Republicans or Democrats to effectively conduct the war on terror. In a CBS News survey 42 percent said Republicans are more likely "to make the right decisions when it comes to dealing with terrorism" while 34 percent said Democrats would make better choices. A Newsweek poll conducted by Princeton Survey Research on Aug. 10-11 showed 44 percent of the sample trusted Republicans to do a better job on the "war against terrorism at home and abroad" while 39 percent felt Democrats would do a better job. In the most recent Post survey, however, 46 percent said Democrats were better equipped to conduct the war on terrorism while 38 percent chose Republicans. That represented a reversal from a June Post poll that showed Republicans with a 46 percent to 39 percent edge on the same question. (It's important to note that the Post's August poll was conducted prior to the uncovering of the British bombing plot.)

What was consistent about the public's response to the question of which party is better suited to conduct the war on terror is the dramatic shift away from Republicans over the past four years. When Newsweek asked the same question in late October 2002, 47 percent said Republicans were the party better ready to handle the war on terror as compared to 24 percent who said Democrats were better equipped. The numbers from a Post poll in the field on Oct. 27, 2002, testing only those most likely to vote, showed 61 percent siding with Republicans on the terror issue and just 26 percent naming the Democrats.

What to make of this avalanche of numbers? Republicans are savvy to seek to make the election a referendum on terrorism. While their numbers are far from stellar on the issue, it represents their best chance of convincing voters why they should keep a Republican-controlled Congress. It's also important to remember that the national GOP's focus on security issues is less an attempt to appeal to independent and swing voters than it is an effort to energize their base. Democratic partisans who strongly disapprove of the job Bush is doing are already motivated to turn out this fall, a fact that causes endless worry for Republican strategists. Typically in a midterm election only those who follow politics most closely (and tend to be the most partisan) turn out -- therefore a major difference in the energy levels of the respective party bases could spell disaster for Republicans in November (a la 1994 for Democrats).

It remains to be seen whether the longtime Republican strategy of linking the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism could complicate their attempts to capitalize on their advantage -- albeit slim -- on the latter issue. Large majorities disapprove of the Bush Administration's handling of the war in Iraq and so the more the two wars are linked in their minds, the better the chance that the disapproval about Iraq bleeds into their views on the war on terror.

The historic strategy of connecting the war on terror and the war in Iraq, coupled with the simultaneous fear of polluting the one issue that holds promise for Republicans this fall, may well explain why President Bush gave a rather tortured explanation of the relationship between Iraq and 9-11 in his Monday press conference. At one moment his statements seemed to connect the two issues, and then he immediately backpedaled and said there was no direct relationship.

In an exchange with a reporter Bush said that arguments about Iraq being "just fine" before the U.S. invasion were false because "the terrorists attacked us and killed 3,000 of our citizens before we started the freedom agenda in the Middle East."

When asked what the 9-11 attacks had to do with Iraq, Bush said: "Nothing. Except for it's part of -- and nobody's ever suggested in this administration that Saddam Hussein ordered the attack. Iraq was a -- Iraq -- the lesson of September the 11th is: Take threats before they fully materialize... Nobody's ever suggested that the attacks of September the 11th were ordered by Iraq. I have suggested, however, that resentment and the lack of hope create the breeding grounds for terrorists who are willing to use suiciders to kill, to achieve an objective. I have made that case."

The focus on national security is a strategy born of necessity for Republicans. On every other major issue in the country, the American people view them as lacking -- at best -- or incompetent at worst. Unlike in the weeks and months leading up to the 2002 and 2004 elections, however, Republicans do not enjoy the same wide advantage over Democrats when voters are asked which party they trust to keep them safe. If Democrats can successfully neutralize the terrorism/national security issue in the fall, they will be well-positioned to make substantial gains in both the House and Senate.

By Chris Cillizza  |  August 23, 2006; 1:09 PM ET
Categories:  Parsing the Polls  
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