By THOMAS HARGROVE and GUIDO H. STEMPEL III
Scripps Howard News Service
August 12, 2006
And the president would be thrashed if he had to run against his own father, George Herbert Walker Bush, losing by more than a 3-to-1 margin in a theoretical match-up in which people were asked to pick between father and son.
The 2000 and 2004 elections are among a very few presidential races that Americans would change, according to interviews with 1,010 adult residents of the United States conducted last month by the Scripps Survey Research Center. The poll asked people how they would vote "knowing what you know now" in every recent presidential race starting with 1960.
"In 75 percent of these elections, those who won before have won again," concluded Brookings Institution scholar Charles O. Jones, who has published histories of the presidencies of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
"The top vote getters in this poll are Kennedy and Reagan, which also generally concurs with rankings made by historians," Jones said. "Although the more recent rankings for Kennedy by historians have been declining while Reagan's rankings lately have been going up."
Participants in the poll were asked how they'd vote in the 1960 election between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Although historically a very close race, 75 percent of people in the survey said they'd pick Kennedy while only 14 percent selected Nixon and 11 percent were undecided or said they'd refuse to vote in the election.
The second largest victory margin in these reruns of recent presidential campaigns was President Reagan's 1984 trouncing of Democrat Walter Mondale, who carried only his home state of Minnesota. The poll found Reagan winning re-election 64 percent to Mondale's 24 percent
At the other end of the scale, however, are the reruns of President Bush's 2000 and 2004 election. The poll found him running 8 percentage points behind former Vice President Al Gore and 6 points behind Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.
Participants in the poll were also asked, "How would you vote if the race were between George Herbert Walker Bush and his son, George W. Bush?" Only 18 percent selected the incumbent president while 58 percent preferred his one-term father, and 24 percent were undecided or said they wouldn't vote in such a race.
"Of course, Bush is doing rather poorly these days, although not as badly as was Harry S Truman in 1951 and 1952," concluded Alonzo Hamby, presidential scholar at the Contemporary History Institute at Ohio University. Like Truman, who was mired in the stalemated conflict in Korea, Bush could eventually have a resurgence of popularity.
"Who can say? There may be more hope for Bush that we might think," Hamby said. "But if we are still bogged in Iraq when he leaves office so that another president has to pull us out, he'll look something like a goat."
The poll found that the only other presidential race that might have a different outcome today was President Nixon's re-election to a second term in 1972. At the time, Nixon overwhelmed Democrat George McGovern in a landslide. But the poll found 42 percent supporting McGovern, 39 percent picking Nixon and 19 percent were undecided.
The poll found Nixon beating Hubert H. Humphrey by 3 percentage points in the 1968 election, a finding that surprised the historians.
"People apparently are willing to see Nixon in his first term as the president who got us out of Vietnam and who opened up China," said Hamby. "But they see Nixon's second term as the era of Watergate, so he doesn't do as well."
President Clinton's 1996 re-election had the third strongest showing in the poll, winning support for 56 percent against 25 percent for former Republican Senate Leader Bob Dole and 12 percent for Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot, while 7 percent were undecided or said they would not vote.
As with the Bush family, the poll found a decided favorite in the Clinton family. When asked to pick if a presidential election were held between Bill Clinton and his wife, New York's Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former president won 53 percent to 24 percent for his wife with 23 percent undecided or unwilling to vote in such a contest.
The survey also offered a theoretical matchup between Kennedy and Reagan, the two most popular presidents in the poll. Participants were asked: "Although they never ran against each other, how would you vote if you had to pick between Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican Ronald Reagan?"
Kennedy beat Reagan 52 percent to 42 percent, with only 6 percent undecided.
Other public opinion polls in recent years have shown Kennedy and Reagan to be the most popular presidents of modern times, usually with Kennedy leading.
The Scripps survey was based on attitudes of adult residents of the United States, not on likely voters, the usual standard used in political polling. Questions used to determine likely voters - how often voters have thought about an upcoming campaign or how certain they are to vote - could not be used in these theoretical rematches of historical presidential campaigns.
The survey was conducted by telephone from July 6-24 at the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University under a grant from the Scripps Howard Foundation. The poll has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.
Guido H. Stempel III is the director of the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University.
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