WASHINGTON - There’s a reason Democrats are confident they’ll win the White House this fall: On the issues that matter most, Americans seem to agree with their candidates.
There’s also a reason Republicans believe their party will prevail: In several recent presidential elections, issues took a back seat to character.
Voters want government to do more to fix the economy. They also want U.S. troops out of Iraq. The presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, sides with a distinct minority on both counts.
On less tangible questions of leadership, strength and trustworthiness, however, polls show McCain beating senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the Democratic candidates. Obama and Clinton are increasingly attacking one another on a personal level, only boosting McCain’s advantage.
A Gallup survey last week suggested Obama would be most vulnerable in a general election on experience; Clinton, on trustworthiness; and McCain, on Iraq and other issues. What the survey did not predict - what analysts say no data can at this point in the campaign - is whether voters will care more about policy or personality.
“Therein,” said Mark Blumenthal, editor and publisher of Pollster.com, “lies the $64,000 question of the whole campaign.”
Picking a president is a complex calculation. Each election, and its backdrop, changes the formula.
Pollsters, strategists and historians say economic concerns overshadowed character questions in 1992, when Bill Clinton beat incumbent President George H.W. Bush. Eight years later, the economy was robust but Vice President Al Gore lost the presidency to George W. Bush, who pledged to “restore dignity” to a scandal-marred White House; polls showed voters preferred many of Gore’s policies but would rather have shared a (non-alcoholic) beer with Bush.
In presidential politics, “issues tend to be situational,” said Bruce Buchanan, a government professor at the University of Texas who studies the presidency. “When there’s a crisis, issues are dominant.”
Sometimes the crises are economic, such as a recession in 1992 and stagflation in 1980, when Ronald Reagan rode the slogan “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” to a rout of President Jimmy Carter. In 2004, analysts attributed President Bush’s re-election to a mix of voters’ concerns over terrorism and their perception that Bush was more trustworthy than Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.
Signs point to another economic crisis this fall. Last month, unemployment rose and the economy lost 80,000 jobs, the Labor Department reported Friday. Home prices are falling, consumer credit is tightening and foreclosures are up. Gallup reported at the end of March that three in five Americans worry “a great deal” about the economy, and that a majority call economic issues the most important problem facing the country.
Recent polls show voters favor Democrats to steer the economy. A CBS News/New York Times poll last week showed Clinton and Obama each leading McCain by 8 percentage points on the question of whom voters trust to make good economic decisions. The poll also showed nearly two in three voters say America should have stayed out of Iraq, and a similar number say the war’s cost hurts the domestic economy.
Based on those numbers, “The Democrats should be way ahead” in general election match-ups, said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. But many polls show Clinton and Obama tied with McCain or barely ahead, which suggests voters are weighing other factors.
A USA Today/Gallup poll last month hints at some of them. McCain led the Democrats on questions of who would be “honest and trustworthy” and a “strong and decisive leader.”
The split opinions “suggest on the surface that in the campaign in the fall, the Republicans might try to pick on the personality issues of the Democrats,” said Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of The Gallup Poll, “and the Democrats, if they’re following the data, might try to go after the policy issues of McCain.”
Advisers to the candidates suggest a more nuanced approach. “When you’re electing a president of the United States, voters make a kind of multi-dimensional choice,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist. “There’s no doubt that personal qualities are important to that. You’re going to essentially live with this person for four years, every day, and entrust all these important decisions to them. You want to feel comfortable with them and for them to feel comfortable with themselves.”
But, he added, repeating an Obama mantra, “this has always been an election about change. ... That is going to drive a lot of this decision-making as well.”
Analysts suggest new developments could change the race before the fall - for example, a terrorist attack on U.S. soil or a foreign crisis, which could tip the debate back to more favorable ground for Republicans.
James Ceaser, a politics professor at the University of Virginia, offered this historical analogy: “If the Cold War had still been going on,” he said, “it’s inconceivable to me that Clinton could have won the race in 1992.”
Also unclear is whether Democrats will succeed in their attempts to tie McCain to Bush. It’s worth noting that the losers in ‘80 and ‘92 were both incumbents.
“The biggest issue in this election will be President Bush and discontent with the status quo,” Kohut said. “That is almost guaranteed. How well Democrats can exploit that, how well McCain can manage that… I think will be the deciding factor.”
Political scientists estimate as many as 90 percent of voters will make their choice simply on party affiliation. The remaining pool, many of them unaffiliated with either party, will be torn between “issues and temperament and personality,” said Bert Rockman, who heads the political science department at Purdue University.
No one knows how those voters will break. Gallup’s Newport recalled surveys he used to conduct on which local news anchors were most popular with viewers. “It was inexplicable,” he said. “Sometimes, that’s appropriate for politics, too.”