Politics & Policy

Kerry and Swift Boats: a Damage Report

A new poll shows some possible effects.

A new Gallup poll provides what might be the best measure so far of the effect the Swift Boat controversy is having on Sen. John Kerry’s presidential candidacy.

The poll, conducted August 23-25, shows Kerry’s unfavorable rating at its highest point since Gallup began measuring Kerry’s performance in February 1999. Forty percent of those surveyed have an unfavorable opinion of Kerry, compared to 52 percent who have a favorable opinion. Kerry’s favorable rating is lower than the 54 percent of those surveyed who have a favorable opinion of President George W. Bush.

From late March until early August, Kerry’s unfavorable rating hovered in the mid-30s. It was 37 percent in a poll taken July 30-August 1. In a survey taken July 8-11, it was 34 percent. Before that, it was even lower. In mid-February, when Kerry locked up the Democratic nomination, his unfavorable rating was 26 percent.

Part of the increase is the natural result of Kerry’s becoming well known. Candidates with little national recognition normally have very low favorable and unfavorable ratings. In February 1999, for example, Kerry’s unfavorable rating was nine percent.

But the recent increase in Kerry’s unfavorable rating is likely the result of something else–a combination of ads aired by the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, negative ads by the Bush campaign, and the simple fact that the public has had more chances to see Kerry, leading some to decide they dislike him.

The flip side of the increase in Kerry’s unfavorable rating is the decrease in his favorable rating. In mid-February, 60 percent of those surveyed by Gallup rated Kerry favorably. By July, it was 56 percent. In the new poll, it is 52 percent.

Gallup’s research places President Bush’s favorable rating at 54 percent and his unfavorable rating at 44 percent. The president’s unfavorable rating has hovered in the mid-40s for much of this year; it was in the 30s for much of 2003.

That trend is not unusual. This is, after all, an election year. In addition, voters have had four years to form opinions about the president, and a substantial number of them do not like him. What is likely to encourage Republican strategists, however, is the prospect that, if the present polling trends continue, Kerry’s unfavorable rating might equal, or perhaps even surpass, Bush’s well before Election Day.

Byron York is a former White House correspondent for National Review.

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