TCS Daily


Are We Safer?

By James K. Glassman - September 23, 2004 12:00 AM

Forget the polls. The electronic market maintained by the University of Iowa's College of Business, which makes you put your money where your opinions are, was showing Sunday that George W. Bush had become a 3-2 favorite to beat John Kerry. In other words, to win a dollar if you're right on Nov. 2, you have to put up 60 cents today for a bet on Bush but just 40 cents for Kerry.

That's the biggest gap, by far, since the market started offering the wager in early June. The Iowa market (check it out at www.biz.uiowa.edu/iem/markets) isn't infallible, but academic research shows it has a better track record than public opinion surveys, and it tends to be far more stable -- which is why the latest numbers are so shocking and significant.

What's going on? First, a re-election campaign, as the political scientists tell us, is traditionally a referendum on the incumbent: Bush, yes or no. But the Bush strategists have brilliantly managed to make the 2004 race, in large measure, a referendum on the challenger, and, so far, Kerry has not measured up.

Yes, the first of three debates is set for next Thursday. But can Kerry change enough minds in little over a month? Second, and more important, Bush has been running on a powerful implicit slogan. It is never flat-out stated by the campaign, or by anyone else, but it is there, nonetheless, in every voter's mind. The slogan is this: "He Kept Us Safe." You won't find it on a bumper sticker because we all know that safety can be transitory, and we don't want to tempt fate (or goad the terrorists themselves).

For the past three years, the ABC News/Washington Post survey has asked Americans, "How concerned are you about the possibility there will be more terrorist attacks in the United States?" Two weeks after 9/11, the proportion answering "a great deal" or "somewhat" was 82 percent. The figure had declined a year later to 72 percent, and it has stayed in that range ever since.

Three-quarters of Americans are concerned about terrorism here, and they should be.

But look a little deeper. Another survey, by CBS News and the New York Times, found a month after 9/11 that half of Americans thought that another terrorist attack "within the next few months" was "very likely." Within six months, the proportion had dropped to about one-third, where it stayed, with some ups and downs, through February 2003. Then, as the Iraq war was starting, the fears started declining. The latest poll, last month, showed only 17 percent thought an attack on our soil was imminent.

Despite the contention of Democrats, Americans apparently see the actions the United States has taken in Afghanistan and Iraq as making us safer.

Now the clincher. CBS asked in August: "Do you think the policies of the Bush administration have made the United States safer from terrorism?" Those who answered, "yes, safer," outnumbered those who said, "no, less" safe by a margin of 51 percent to 24 percent.

Pundits who say that outsourcing or health care or gay marriage or the deficit are the main issues in this campaign are kidding themselves. What people really care about is their safety. In October 2001, Gallup found that one-fourth of Americans were "very worried" that they or members of their families would become victims of terrorism. Today, the figure is 11 percent.

Right or wrong, most voters believe that Bush gets credit for making them safer. He took the battle to the enemy.

Have there been costs? Certainly, in terms of troops killed and wounded, money spent, inconvenience suffered, personal freedom abridged and the enmity of other nations aroused. But most voters, I suspect, see those costs are worth paying. Try this thought experiment: What would you pay, in dollars, to lift the threat of terrorism from your family? My guess is that the number would be a very high one, that it would dwarf any savings you think you might get if Kerry's health plan is most efficient than Bush's (which it is not, by the way).

Of course, Bush has not lifted the threat of terrorism entirely. But he's done enough, in his response to 9/11, to merit that bumper sticker.

 


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