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Unpopular presidents, like Nixon, Reagan and maybe Bush, often win

By Brendon O'Connor - posted Monday, 19 April 2004

Long-time political commentator William F. Buckley Jr. recently opined that within America a "singular hatred" of George W. Bush was "rivaling what was felt for Nixon in 1973-4". Beyond the borders of the United States this response is amplified, with Bush the subject of more disdain and mockery than even Ronald Reagan. However, politicians who elicit strong negative responses are often successful at the ballot box in America, as in Australia. Need I mention the names Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon or John Howard?

When people are asked why they hate politicians, the most common answer is because politicians are liars. The title of a recent book on American politics Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them sums up the contempt many people feel for politicians. Animosity towards Bush has risen at a time when every second book about him has lies in the title and catalogues the claimed fibs he has largely got away with telling.

Popularity and hatred are often two sides of the same political coin. Time Magazine recently called George W. Bush the "Great Polarizer" in an article that also emphasised his solid base of loyal supporters among American voters. When the Spanish PM Jose Maria Aznar told Bush that in Europe he was "nearly as unpopular as Ronald Reagan" Bush replied, "I'm keeping pretty good company".


It is worth remembering that a year out from the 1984 presidential election Ronald Reagan looked in trouble. The economy was weak with substantial job losses and a ballooning national debt (blamed by many on Reagan's trickle-down inspired tax cuts). In October 1983, a terrorist attack in Lebanon had killed 274 marines. Further, Reagan's intellect had been repeatedly questioned as had his ability to control his supposedly manipulative and highly conservative advisers. To boot, his gung-ho foreign-policy rhetoric and actions had earned him plenty of detractors overseas.

The Democrats for their part in 1984 had chosen an experienced liberal Senator – not the most charismatic option but pragmatically chosen as the man most likely to beat Reagan. All of this sounds unsettlingly similar to 2004 and the punch line is that none of it stopped Reagan in 1984 from winning one of the most comprehensive victories in the history of American presidential politics. Those hoping for Bush to receive a pink slip from US voters this year should take comfort in some significant differences. In 1984 the US economy improved fairly dramatically and foreign affairs faded in significance to voters; thus domestic renewal and patriotism buoyed by the LA Olympics were highly successful campaign themes for Reagan. There are also significant personal differences with Reagan a more gifted speaker and advocate of his policies than Bush.

As for how the opposition compares, anti-Bush voting intentions seem much firmer than anti-Reagan sentiment, unifying the Democrats in 2004 compared to 1984 when many working-class Democrat voters moved to the right as a part of a phenomenon dubbed the rise of the "Reagan Democrats". A new wave of Bush Democrats is highly unlikely in 2004 with surveys showing that registered Democrats are more likely than ever to vote against a Republican president. However, many of the "Reagan Democrats" from the South and the Midwest continue to vote for Republicans. Renamed "Nascar Dads", this group is possibly more prized than Clinton's Volvo-driving "Soccer Mums". Nascar racing is particularly popular in the US at present. The people it attracts are beer-drinking patriots who are attracted to Bush's cultural politics and foreign policy. To underline this support a recent survey claimed that Americans who drink beer with dinner prefer Bush over a Democrat president by 23 percentage points, whereas those who drink wine with dinner favour a Democrat by 7 percentage points.

These crude terms and surveys have their weaknesses but they point to a cultural divide that Bush will seek to exploit to his benefit in 2004 by emphasising issues such as his opposition to gay marriage, his support for the troops abroad and his war on terror. It is too early to say who will win this year's US presidential election. To date, Bush's opponent, the Democratic Senator John Kerry, has used anti-Bush sentiment to energise his campaign for the Oval Office. However, as the election date approaches, it is worth remembering that politicians who elicit passionate derision often emerge victorious on election day.

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Article edited by Eliza Brown.
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This article was first published in The Courier Mail on 13 April 2004,

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About the Author

Brendon O'Connor is an Associate Professor in the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and is the 2008 Australia Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. He is the editor of seven books on anti-Americanism and has also published articles and books on American welfare policy, presidential politics, US foreign policy, and Australian-American relations.

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Department of Politics and Public Policy, Griffith University
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