The iconic cartoon of this presidential race may have been one from the Newark Star-Ledger, showing Vice President Cheney cuddling a drooling baby golden retriever with a loopy look on its face. Cheney's stern visage stared out, with the warning: â€œIf you make the wrong choice in November, terrorists will attack this puppy.â€?
That's been the war cry for the Bush reelection team. Bush-Cheney campaign squads portray Kerry as â€œweak on terrorism,â€? and â€œAl-Qaeda's candidate.â€?
But do Americans really believe that terrorists are more likely to hit us again if Kerry wins? And what do we think will happen to the country in the wake of either a Kerry or Bush victory? An exclusive poll for American Demographics conducted by Zogby International shortly before the election found surprising answers to these questions. Some 1,036 likely voters were surveyed, half of them Democrats and half Republicans.
Only GOP true believers buy the â€œfear factorâ€? argument, with 1 in 2 respondents saying neither candidate is more likely to incite another terrorist strike. The rest split along party lines: 24 percent said that a Kerry win would lead to a new attack, and 22 percent said Bush's victory would.
What does this mean? According to several politicos interviewed, U.S. voters are aware that there are some things beyond America's control. â€œPeople see terrorism in sort of the same way they see the economy,â€? says Tucker Carlson, Republican commentator and host of CNN's Crossfire. â€œIt's a product of a bunch of larger forces. It's like the weather: Some may handle it better than others, but nobody controls it.â€?
The Bush campaign's scare tactics have inherent limits.â€œFear plays to your die-hards,â€? says analyst Steffen Schmidt, a professor at Iowa State University. â€œIndependents are not driven by fear campaigns because they tend to be skeptics.
â€œThis poll suggests that even many Republicans think they can't prevent another attack,â€? says Schmidt, known as â€œDr. Politicsâ€? on the airwaves in Iowa. â€œThis weakens Bush's and Cheney's argument against Kerry.â€?
This result is â€œgood news for Democrats,â€? says Michael Lind, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. â€œI thought for a long time that the sense of imminent threat had passed,â€? adds Lind, whose last book, Made in Texas (Basic Books, 2002) vilified George W. Bush. â€œPeople aren't that unnerved anymore about the possibility of another attack here; we are more immune to it. However, if the election had been held in 2003, Bush would have swept it.â€?
Are Americans more afraid of a Bush or a Kerry win? Voters were virtually tied at 45 percent and 44 percent, respectively, and the subdivisions represent â€œthe usual suspects,â€? as Schmidt notes. A majority of self-identified investors, whites, Republicans, Protestants, born-again Christians, rural voters, Southerners, Midwesterners, and married voters were more frightened of Kerry. Poorer, East Coast, ethnic voters and Democrats fear Bush. Catholics were evenly uncertain.
However, African Americans are most worried about a Bush reelection by a huge margin: 80 percent. Fully 48 percent of black respondents said they thought that the worst thing that would happen if Bush were reelected would be more conflict in the Middle East. That was more than twice the number of whites or Hispanics.
â€œHere's how you connect the dots between those findings and what's in the news,â€? says Arnie Arnesen, radio host and former Democratic candidate for governor of New Hampshire. Arnesen noted African American concerns about increased warfare reflected in a recent Wall Street Journal piece that said that the Army's ability to recruit black soldiers has â€œplummeted.â€? Blacks accounted for 21 percent of all recruits in 2002, but are now only 15.6 percent. â€œAfrican American voters see what is happening. There's no draft, and they're bearing a huge cost in personal terms of the war in Iraq,â€? says Arnesen.
Professor Ron Walters of the University of Maryland agrees. The Zogby poll is â€œconsistent with results of a Black Entertainment [BET] poll in late July, showing African Americans with about the same level of concern â€” around 70 percent.â€? Walters, a noted African American scholar says, â€œThe black community's attitude about a GOP president is off the charts.
â€œThe African American community has always been suspicious of military engagements,â€? says Walters. â€œThey feel that they pay more personally in military wars in recent decades, and because the economic resources invested in wars take away from other needs.
â€œWe are 25 percent of the military, and a high percentage of casualties in Iraq, for only being 13 percent of population. It's no wonder we're scared of another Bush term, and of continued conflict,â€? he concludes. â€œWe know who will do the fighting.â€?
Who do Americans believe will pull us out of Iraq? Some 41 percent said they think that Kerry's first act as president will be to withdraw from Iraq, while 35 percent thought that Bush's first action will be to send more troops there. This may be a classic case of voters responding to â€œtype,â€? while ignoring candidates' actual words.
Regarding the typecasting, Carlson says, â€œBush may suggest that Kerry wants to quit, but I think it's the opposite. Kerry will feel a lot of pressure to keep troops in Iraq, and Bush will be the one to withdraw. But Bush won't talk about it until after the election.â€?
â€œThere's a disconnect between what a large percentage of people would like to hear Kerry say, and what he can say,â€? says Schmidt. â€œI think Democrats are nervous about being tagged as quitters, leaving Iraq like the USSR left Afghanistan.â€?
â€œIt's like Nixon and China here,â€? says Carlson, â€œKerry ends up sounding like the hard-liner, while Bush is really the one who can get us out without seeming â€˜the type.â€™
â€œKerry should carry through with his rhetoric about â€˜Wrong war; Wrong time,â€™â€? Carlson says. â€œIf Kerry is going to withdraw, then he should say that; he should take a stand.
â€œKerry may be right; we were OK with Saddam in power,â€? adds Carlson. â€œYou can make the argument that a despot in power is better than chaos. Saddam is evil, but there was a certain kind of stability as it affected America, and that should be the focus.â€?
Schmidt found the answers to the â€œfirst act as presidentâ€? question â€œfascinating.â€? â€œAmerican voters are so wacky,â€? he says, referring to responses to the American Demographics/Zogby poll. â€œThese people wish Kerry would say â€˜I'll pull U.S. troops out of Iraq.â€™â€?
â€œIt's wishful thinking,â€? says Lind. â€œOr they just don't believe what they hear. They think Kerry really will withdraw, no matter what he says â€” and they want it.â€?
We asked, â€œWhat are the best and worst things that will happen if Bush and Kerry are elected?â€? The results came in scattered. Some 17 percent said the best thing that would happen if Bush were elected is â€œpeace in the Middle East;â€? 12 percent said there will be less regulation and lower taxes; 11 percent anticipate a return to traditional moral values. One in 10 said they expect the economy to flourish, 9 percent look forward to the appointment of conservative judges and 6 percent said the Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade.
â€œThey're all over the place,â€? says Schmidt. â€œThey aren't voting for Bush on Iraq, but on a number of other issues that are important to them. It's not a one-issue thing for his base.â€?
Asked what's the worst thing that will happen in case of a Bush victory, 26 percent predicted â€œmore war in the Middle East or more terrorist attacks,â€? followed by â€œwar with Cuba, Syria, Iran and Korea.â€?
Respondents weren't very clear about the best-case scenario following a Kerry triumph: Only 12 percent said he'd bring peace to the Middle East. The same number said he'd lower health-care costs. Smaller numbers said he'd protect the environment, appoint moderate judges, overturn the Patriot Act and protect a woman's right to choose.
But 18 percent said the worst that would happen in a Kerry administration is another terrorist attack on the U.S. or an increase in taxes (Republicans fear both equally). One in 10 fears the appointment of liberal judges and a decline in America's morality. Men were more concerned about rising taxes than another terrorist hit, while the opposite was true for women. Says Schmidt: â€œPeople clearly are not confident that Bush can fix some of these things, but don't know about Kerry either.â€?
We asked whether Kerry or Bush would have more impact on several crucial issues such as the economy, the war, terrorism, health care and the draft, or whether neither could make a difference. Kerry is seen as more likely to increase jobs than Bush (45 percent versus 30 percent) and to lower health-care costs (44 percent versus 18 percent). But people think he's likely to do only marginally better than Bush in Iraq.
â€œNo differenceâ€? was a frequent winner among respondents. More people think Bush will reinstate the draft than Kerry will, 35 percent to 13 percent, respectively; but 43 percent said neither candidate would make a difference. Kerry may help Social Security solvency more than Bush (32 percent versus 23 percent), but 36 percent said â€œno difference.â€? Kerry is considered slightly more likely to improve the economy than Bush (35 percent versus 30 percent), but a third said â€œno difference.â€?
That either indicates a new level of sophistication among voters about American leaders' shrinking ability to direct events. Or a genuine belief that we've got two candidates who won't follow through on promises and will prove weaker than their words. Or we're all too depressed to think any of it matters. That, says Carlson, is â€œcampaign burnout.â€?