Americans have sharply lost confidence in the economy in recent weeks, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Wednesday, which showed that the presumed Democratic nominee for president, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, had pulled into a statistical tie with President Bush.
The poll, conducted by Hart/Teeter Associates of Washington, showed a nation almost perfectly divided on its assessment of the economy, an issue that has taken a larger role in the presidential campaign as the war in Iraq recedes into the past. More than a third of respondents, 35 percent, said they thought the economy had worsened in the previous 12 months, compared with 33 percent who said it had improved and 31 percent who said it had remained the same.
The division represents a significant drop from the previous NBC/Journal poll, conducted in January, when respondents said by a ratio of almost 2-to-1 that they felt the economy was getting better.
The importance of the issue was illustrated Wednesday as economic questions dominated both candidates’ major campaign speeches of the day. Democrats have made it clear that they hope to use the trade deficit — which the Commerce Department reported Wednesday grew by nearly a full percentage point in January alone — and the loss of manufacturing jobs as issues against Bush.
Results at odds with other recent polls
The NBC/Journal poll found Bush and Kerry in a dead heat eight months before the general election. Bush was favored by 47 percent of respondents, while 45 percent backed Kerry, a difference that was within the poll’s reported margin of sampling error of 3.1 percentage points.
It was difficult to gauge the importance of the result, which was notably at odds with those of other polls in the past week, which have found Kerry with a statistically significant lead in a head-to-head matchup. Kerry led Bush by 9 points in the latest Washington Post/ABC News survey and by 8 points in the latest USA Today/CNN poll.
The NBC/Journal question also did not account for independent Ralph Nader, even though he had announced his intention to run almost three weeks previously. Other polls have indicated that Nader could draw enough support — as high as 6 percent in some surveys — to swing the election either way, with most of his strength being drained from Kerry.
The survey also included troubling news for Vice President Dick Cheney, whose popularity has slid amid a Defense Department audit of the activities in Iraq of Halliburton Co., the oil services concern he used to lead, and his court battle to prevent revealing the identifies of some of the participants in his task force to develop an energy policy for the Bush administration.
Only 39 percent of respondents felt “positively” or “very positively” about Cheney, the lowest level he has ever recorded in the NBC/Journal survey, which has assessed the vice president’s support several times a year since he took office in January 2001.
Cheney’s public image has increasingly come to be seen among Republicans as a possible drag on the ticket, although Bush has been adamant in his insistence that Cheney would not be replaced. A USA Today/CNN poll last month found that 42 percent of Americans — including 28 percent of Republicans — thought Cheney should be dropped.
‘Two right shoes’
Pollster Peter Hart said in an analysis for NBC News that the general public mood was as though the president was “wearing two right shoes — nothing seems to quite fit together, and everything Bush does seems awkward.”
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Public sentiment appeared to have reverted to that of the second half of last year, Hart said, before U.S. forces captured former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, revitalizing support for Bush’s policy on Iraq.
If the president could take any comfort from the NBC/Journal poll, it would seem to be that Iraq holds the potential to keep his support afloat.
Despite relentless pummeling from Kerry and other prominent Democrats, backing for the war remained steady in the new poll, at 50 percent, virtually unchanged from 52 percent two months ago. Forty-five percent said the war was not worth the number of U.S. casualties or the financial cost.
The finding is consistent with those of other recent polls, including the Post/ABC survey, which found an almost identical 52 percent-to-44 percent split.
No to same-sex marriage
The poll also asked Americans about same-sex marriage, which Bush made an issue in the campaign last month when he said he supported a proposal to amend the U.S. Constitution to ban the practice. Kerry has said he opposes same-sex marriage but favors allowing states to determine their own courses.
By a ratio of more than 2-to-1 (62 percent to 30 percent), respondents said they opposed allowing same-sex couples to marry. Among those who opposed them, 5 of 6 said they “strongly opposed” such weddings.
However, the overwhelming opposition to same-sex weddings did not translate into proportional support for a proposal to amend the U.S. Constitution to ban them. Forty-two percent of respondents thought a constitutional amendment would be a bad idea, compared with 54 percent who supported the idea.
The results were in line with those of the Post/ABC and USA Today/CNN polls earlier this week.
For the NBC/Journal poll, Hart/Teeter Associates interviewed 1,018 adults nationwide Saturday through Monday. Results were being released in stages, with more data being reported in Thursday’s editions of The Wall Street Journal.
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