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Jewish World Review Jan. 22, 2003 / 19 Shevat, 5763

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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Consumer Reports

When handicapping 2004, watch the economy: Ten minutes with Charlie Cook | With Democrat Sen. Joe Lieberman joining the parade of presidential wannabees for 2004 this week, it's a good time to call up Charlie Cook.

Cook, the editor and publisher of "The Cook Political Report" ( and a regular guest on TV news and chat shows, is an expert on elections and other political doing.

But he's also renowned for something that's quite rare in Washington, D.C. - impartiality. I called the independent, nonpartisan analyst at his offices on Tuesday:

Q: Is there a legal limit to how many Democrats can try out for president?

A: Oh, no. We've seen big fields in both parties before. In 1976, Democrats had a cast of thousands - Jimmy Carter, Mo Udall, Birch Bayh, Hubert Humphrey. In 1988, Republicans had a ton of candidates with Bush and Dole and Lamar Alexander and four of five others. It's not that unusual for the out-party or an open-seat situation to have a real big field.

Q: Who do you think is the strongest candidate of the six announced ones so far?

A: I don't think there's absolutely any way of knowing. Between John Kerry, John Edwards, Dick Gephardt and Joseph Lieberman, each one has maybe a 20 percent chance of getting the nomination. The remaining 20 percent is sort of split between (Vermont Gov.) Howard Dean, (Florida Sen.) Bob Graham, (former Colorado Sen.) Gary Hart and anyone else who chooses to get in.

This is about as wide-open a field as you could possibly have. Each candidate's got an argument for why he can win the nomination and each has an argument for why he can't, so I don't think any of them have any significant advantage.

Q: Does Al Gore know something that these guys don't, about the chances of winning, or in general?

A: No. My guess is that former Vice President Gore was not getting a great deal of enthusiasm among prospective donors. His book was not selling well. A lot of people who played critical roles in his 2000 campaign were not making themselves available to him. I think there was a strong sense through the Democratic Party that Gore had his shot and had blown it.

At this point, polls and mid-term elections results are of absolute no value in terms of predicting whether presidents get re-elected or not. After all, at this point, in his second year of office Ronald Reagan had a 41 percent job approval in December and went on to win 49 states.

Clinton had Gallup job-approval ratings of 40 to 42 percent. Nixon had a 52 percent job approval rating at this stage. Carter had a 51. So here you had one point difference between Carter and Reagan, and their re-election campaigns certainly went in completely different directions.

Q: And Bush has a job-approval rating right now of?

A: Ah, 58 in the Gallup that came out Tuesday and 58 in our poll that came out Monday, which is only about 2 points above the average job-approval rating for all presidents over the entire length of their term in office.

In fact, there really is no relationship whatsoever between a president's approval rating in the first 33 months in office and whether they ended up getting re-elected. In fact, it's closer to an inverse relationship.

It's only around October of the year before the presidential election that you start seeing in terms of the Gallup Poll a relationship form where the strength in the job-approval rating starts telling you something about whether they ended up getting re-elected or not.

We're an ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) nation and anything that happened much more than a year before the presidential election, for all intents and purposes, didn't happen at all.

Q: Is there anyone left - Bill Bradley Hillary Clinton - who is likely to jump into the 2004 race and become a favorite?

A: No. I don't think anybody's going to be a favorite any time soon. I think Sen. Clinton is not going to get in. I don't think Bill Bradley is going to get in. Gary Hart is making noises and Sen. Graham is likely to get in. I think with the exceptions of Hart and Graham, we pretty much have the field now. This process of winning the nomination is so horribly expensive, you really pretty much have to get going by January maybe February at the latest.

Q: Is it going to take someone really close to the center and to President Bush's politics to beat him, or is it going to take someone who's going to separate himself more from Bush?

A: First of all, we don't know, sitting here 21 or 22 months before the presidential election, what the national dynamics are going to be like. We have no idea what the economy is going to look like. We have no idea what the war and peace situation is going to look like. There is so much we don't know, and those are the things that are going to define the outline and contours of what that election is going to be like.

Q: Is 2004 Bush's race to lose?

A: Well, I think whether presidents get elected or not is a function of how they are perceived as doing their job. If people perceive the president as having handled the job well and the economy is strong, then it really doesn't matter who the out-party nominates, the incumbent is going to win.

Conversely, if the economy is lousy or the president's made missteps, then almost any reasonably competent person the out-party nominates can have a good shot at winning. I'd say it's a matter of performance and the economy, which is often times out of the control of the president.

Q: Can Iraq make or break Bush?

A: It's more likely to break than make. A war going badly is more likely to have longer legs and more lasting impact than one that is successful. The Persian Gulf War certainly didn't have long legs for President Bush Sr., but one that goes badly would usually erode the president's effectiveness on every other level, so that it would be very hard for them to recover. If I had to guess right now whether what happens in Iraq makes or break Bush, I'd guess that the economy is more important.

Q: What should the layperson keep his eye on over the next year or so to get some sense of whether Bush's prospects are getting stronger or weaker?

A: I would watch the economy first. And starting around October or November of next year, I would start looking at the polls. Not so much what the incumbent's margin is as much as where is the incumbent vis-a-vis 50 percent in the polls.

I would focus on not looking at any one single poll as much as looking at all of them collectively. There's a natural tendency people have to gravitate toward and believe the one poll that tells them what they want to hear while a majority of them go another way.

You also always have to be aware that this is a weird business and funny little things make a difference. In 2000, then-governor Bush had a lead of between 2 and 8 percentage points in virtually every credible national poll going into Election Day and lost the popular vote by 1 point. I was quoted many times as saying I didn't think the DUI arrest story would have any difference (with Bush), but in retrospect, I think it probably cost him the popular vote.

Q: Do you have any predictions about 2004? Bush versus who and who wins?

A: I wouldn't begin to say who wins. But my guess is that this is going to be a very, very close race. You've got a country that's basically evenly divided. Republicans have a four-tenths of a point advantage in terms of state legislative seats nationally, a 1 point advantage in terms of party ID.

The Senate is 51-49. The governorships are 26-24. The House margin is a little wider, but by just about every measure you want to look at, the country is split pretty down close down the middle and that creates the likelihood of a very close race.

We're a long way from seeing this race over, but only a fool would predict the outcome at this point.

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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald