WASHINGTON — With just over four months until Election Day, a near-majority of Americans believe the nation is headed in the wrong direction and that President Bush deliberately misled the public to make the case for war in Iraq, the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds. Yet even with those less-than-positive numbers for the president, the survey also shows that the race between Bush and presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry is a statistical tie.
According to the poll, which was conducted by Hart/Teeter, Bush gets the support of 45 percent of registered voters, Kerry gets 44 percent, and independent candidate Ralph Nader gets 4 percent. Nader is not yet officially on any state ballot.
"Kerry has a ways to go to be able to take advantage of Bush's weaknesses," said Peter D. Hart, a Democratic pollster. Still, he noted, the survey numbers suggest Bush "has to come back and win this election. He goes into the summer period down but not out."
The poll shows that only 36 percent of respondents believe the nation is headed in the right direction, compared with 48 percent who say the country is on the wrong track. That's a slight improvement from the survey's results in May, however, when 50 percent said the nation was headed in the wrong direction.
"This is just a cranky and unhappy electorate," Hart said. And that could possibly be a tremendous liability for Bush if those numbers don't improve this fall, since experts believe that right direction/wrong track numbers provide one of the most accurate measures of whether or not an incumbent president will be re-elected.
Good news — and bad — for administration
The poll — which was conducted from June 25 to June 28 of 1,025 registered voters, and which has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points — comes out amid both good and bad news for the Bush administration. On the positive side, as the Bush campaign points out, the economy has added 1.4 million payroll jobs in the past nine months. Many experts also believe that the recent death of President Reagan benefited Bush and his re-election campaign after Bush eulogized the former president at the Washington National Cathedral, and after the press (for the most part) glowingly highlighted Reagan's presidency.
But troubling news and damaging images — almost all of which are Iraq-related — have also plagued the administration, including the recent beheadings of 26-year-old American Nicholas Berg, American contractor Paul Johnson and a South Korean translator. In addition, U.S. casualties in Iraq continue to increase (although they're down significantly from their monthly peak in April), and Americans are still reminded of the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse photos. And the Sept. 11 commission found no clear collaborative link between Iraq and al-Qaida, challenging one of the administration's primary justifications for the Iraq war.
Indeed, given these recent events, Republican pollster Mary Lukens, who worked on the survey, suggested the administration could be faring worse than it is. "I was surprised overall that [Kerry] had not done better, just because I was expecting many of the events in the last few weeks to be particularly negative toward the president — which they were, but not as bad as I thought."
When asked which one or two events have had the greatest personal effect on them, 57 percent of those surveyed cite the situation in Iraq and the hostage killings, 48 percent say higher gasoline prices, and 20 percent mention Reagan's death.
Moreover, the survey notes that 47 percent of registered voters now believe Bush deliberately misled the people to make his case for war in Iraq, while 44 percent think he gave the country the most accurate information he had. That's a noticeable change from March, when the poll showed a majority saying Bush had given the people the most accurate information he had.
Despite these negative numbers for Bush, the presidential horse race between Bush and Kerry is deadlocked, and the poll suggests one reason why: Voters still don't know much about Kerry, even though his campaign has spent tens of millions of dollars in TV advertisements. According to the poll, in fact, just 57 percent of the respondents say they know a lot or a fair amount about Kerry — a real drop from 68 percent in the NBC/Journal March survey.
"They don't know anything about what [Kerry] is proposing," said Lukens, the GOP pollster. "It just shows where he's got to go and some of the things he has to do in order to shore up the support even among his own party."
Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.