War casualties are negatively impacting Bush's chances of re-election

07/12/04

Study by Tufts and Rice Universities Shows Performance of Economy Has Had Little Effect on Evaluations of Bush, Who Will 'Stand or Fall on the Results of Events in Iraq'

HOUSTON--(July 13, 2004)-- American casualties from the war in Iraq are having a profound negative impact on President Bush's approval rating and might have a similar effect on his chances of re-election, according to a study by political scientists at Rice University in Houston and Tufts University in Medford/Somerville, Mass.

The Foreign Policy Centre in London published online today the study by Richard Eichenberg at Tufts and Richard Stoll at Rice. The researchers studied the past two years' opinion polls that surveyed approval or disapproval of the president's handling of the situation in Iraq. When Baghdad fell and Bush delivered his "mission accomplished" speech May 1, 2003, approval of his handling of Iraq exceeded 70 percent. But since then, that approval has eroded by more than 30 percentage points as American casualties have risen.

In their analysis, Eichenberg and Stoll found that for every 100 service personnel who have died in the war, Bush's approval rating on Iraq has declined almost 3 percentage points. Since March 19, 2003, the death of 857 Americans has lowered public approval of Bush by approximately 25 percentage points.

The start of the war caused an 11-point rally in support for the president. "But many other events – both triumphs and setbacks – had virtually no statistical impact," said Richard Eichenberg, associate professor of political science at Tufts. "Even the capture of Saddam Hussein, which generated substantial media coverage and did cause a visible upward movement in the Iraq approval series, did not have an impact that was statistically significant."

Despite the relatively good news in May and June when an Iraqi prime minister was appointed and the United Nations Security Council approved the transfer of sovereignty, approval of Bush's handling of the situation improved only slightly at the end of June – to 42 percent.

"The obvious conclusion from these results is that the casualty rate has indeed had a consistent, inexorable downward impact on assessments of Iraq policy," said Richard Stoll, professor of political science at Rice.

Eichenberg and Stoll also evaluated Bush's overall job approval rating, taking into account the economy (as measured by real disposable income per capita) and "rally events" (significant happenings that warrant public support of the president), as well as the casualties of war. They also evaluated how the president's job-approval rating is likely to affect his chances of re-election.

Although the 9/11 rally pushed Bush's job-approval ratings to the highest level ever for an American president, that approval has been declining since May 1, 2003 when Bush declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq. During non-war years, most voters evaluate the president's performance in terms of how well the economy is doing. Bush has not benefited from the recently improved economy, which suggests the ongoing casualties of the war weigh more heavily on the public's mind.

Since 9/11, many Americans have considered the current administration a "war" presidency, with evaluations of the president dominated by a preoccupation with his handling of terrorism and war, the researchers noted. From March to June 2004 – a period that encompasses one of the most deadly months for U.S. troops and the prisoner-abuse scandal, the war in Iraq moved ahead of the economy as the public's perceived "most important problem."

For a historical perspective, Eichenberg and Stoll compared job-approval poll results for presidents Eisenhower through Clinton in relation to which incumbents won re-election. Both found that presidents who won re-election had an average approval rating in their fourth year of almost 60 percent. Those who did not win re-election had an average approval rating almost 20 points lower in their fourth year.

The researchers noted that at the end of June 2004, Bush's approval level of 47 percent was well below the average for past presidents who successfully sought re-election, but still higher than the level of those who lost.

"As several polling specialists have noted, the president is clearly in a political danger area in which re-election, although not foreclosed, will be difficult," the researchers concluded.

Stoll said the study results combine the expected with the unusual. "We expect that the public's feelings about the war will be influenced by the level of American casualties, and they are," he said. "We also expect there to be a number of rally events that increase public support, but we find that a number of the obvious ones have no substantial impact. We anticipate that casualties will play a major role in presidential approval, and they do. In addition, we expect changes in the economy to play an important role in presidential approval, but to date they have no effect on this president's approval ratings."

Eichenberg elaborated on the latter. "The most surprising finding from our study is that the performance of the economy has had such little effect on evaluations of the president," he said. "This is a war presidency, plain and simple, and President Bush will stand or fall on the results of events in Iraq. If American soldiers continue to die, his re-election is in serious doubt."

Source: Eurekalert & others

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