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Americans Eager for Transfer of Power, but Doubt It Will Happen

It’s not clear how much Americans know about the June 30 transfer of power in Iraq, except that most people are eager to see it happen.

Fifty-seven percent told CBS News in a May 20-23 poll that the United States should hand over governing authority to the Iraqis, and 34 percent said such a transfer should not happen. In another question in the poll, only 29 percent thought it would actually happen. [IMGCAP(1)]

In a question from the June 8-9 Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll, 33 percent were confident the transfer would go smoothly, while 59 percent were not.

The Optimism Contest. In recent presidential contests, the candidate with the more hopeful and forward-looking personality has won. (In the 2000 exit poll, virtually identical numbers of voters said they would be optimistic or excited about a Bush or a Gore presidency. )

That may explain why President Bush’s team recently started to air a commercial painting the president as the optimist and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) as the pessimist. At this point, however, the president barely leads on the quality. In the June 8-9 Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll, 42 percent said Bush had a more optimistic outlook on the future of the country and 40 percent said Kerry did.

A recent Harris poll found that 63 percent of Americans expected to be better off in five years. Only 6 percent said they would be worse off.

And optimism in the poll was a bottom-up phenomenon. People who weren’t as far along on the continuum to the American Dream were more optimistic about the future. More than 80 percent of African-Americans and Hispanics were optimistic about where they would be in five years, compared to 62 percent of whites.

Americans’ optimistic streak comes through in many polling questions, not just on economics. After the dark days of Fallujah and Abu Ghraib, 62 percent in an ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted May 20-23 described themselves as hopeful about Iraq.

Has Kerry Gained Ground on Iraq? That depends on the time frame you use. In late spring 2003, after the active phase of the war in Iraq ended and again after the capture of Saddam Hussein, Bush led generic and named Democratic challengers on handling Iraq. It seems reasonable to look now at comparisons between Bush and Kerry.

In the Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll conducted May 7-9, 48 percent said Bush would do a better job handling the situation in Iraq and 45 percent said Kerry would. In January, those responses were 50 percent and 44 percent, respectively.

The ABC News/Washington Post poll, taken May 20-23, shows Bush leading Kerry by 6 points as the person people would trust to do a better job handling the situation there (48 percent to 42 percent). That’s virtually identical to the February ratings of 48 percent to 41 percent.

The early-June Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll shows that 43 percent thought Bush would do a better job and 39 percent Kerry. In early April, those responses were 47 percent to 34 percent.

Barbecues, Beer, Bush and Kerry. Bush is trailing in some polls on the presidential contest, but he’s winning the “comfort level” contest. In the May 18-19 Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll, 42 percent said they would rather sit down and have a beer or soda with Bush, 36 percent with Kerry. In the May 18-24 Quinnipiac University poll, 50 percent said they would rather have a barbeque with Bush and 39 percent with Kerry.

A Resurgence of Liberalism? Are liberal interest groups picking up members, contributions and political support, as several speakers a recent gathering of progressives suggested? I can’t speak to the first two, but a careful look at several organizations’ trends on ideological identification doesn’t suggest much movement in their direction.

Harris Interactive recently examined its data on ideological identification by decade. In the 1970s, 18 percent nationally called themselves liberals (and 32 percent conservatives). In the 1980s, those responses were 18 percent and 36 percent, and in the 1990s, 18 percent and 38 percent. Thus far this decade, liberals trail conservatives, 18 percent to 34 percent. CBS’ data from 1976 to 2003 shows a decline for self-identified liberals (down 6 points to 19 percent) and virtually no change in the number of self-identified conservatives (33 percent to 32 percent.)

Nor is an uptick for liberals showing up on college campuses. In 1970, in UCLA’s poll of college freshmen, 37 percent called themselves liberals and 18 percent conservatives. In 2003, 27 percent called themselves liberals and 23 percent conservatives.

Karlyn Bowman is a resident fellow specializing in public opinion and polls at the American Enterprise Institute.

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