WASHINGTON – In Arizona, Judy Donovan says she feels desperate for a new president. In Tennessee, Robert Wilson says he finds the president revolting. In Washington state, Maria Yurasek says she'd vote for a dog if it could beat President Bush.
A subtext to this year's presidential campaign is the intense anger that many Democrats are directing toward Bush, an attitude that has been growing in recent months.
"I've never seen anything like it," saysTed Jelen (search), a political science professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. "There are people who just really, really hate this person."
Fully a quarter of Americans — mostly Democrats — tell pollsters they have a very unfavorable opinion of the president, more than double the number from last April. When only Democrats are polled, more than half report they feel that way.
Further, in exit polls conducted during Democratic primaries, a sizable chunk of voters have been describing themselves as not just dissatisfied with Bush but outright angry — 51 percent in Delaware, 46 percent in Arizona and New Hampshire, 44 percent in Virginia and Wisconsin.
"They really have a head of steam up against Bush," said Andrew Kohut (search), director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. He said the level of political polarization surrounding Bush, the division between Republicans who favor him and Democrats who don't, exceeds even that for President Clinton in September 1998 during the impeachment battle.
A substantial number of independents who voted in the Democratic primaries expressed anger at Bush as well, exit polls found. For example, almost half of independents in the Delaware primary said they were angry, and about four in 10 in Virginia, Arizona, Iowa and New Hampshire. In Wisconsin, one in 10 of the Republicans who voted in the primaries said they were angry at Bush, and more than twice that many said they were dissatisfied.
Plenty of presidents have generated intense feelings, of course, but Democrats — and even some Republicans — think the phenomenon is outsized this year.
"I've never seen a Democratic Party more unified and more focused, and the anger helps do just that," said GOP pollster Frank Luntz. "The intensity level is just so high. They're using four-letter words to describe him."
In a recent focus group that Luntz conducted for MSNBC, technicians had to adjust the volume levels because the Bush-haters were "so gosh-darn loud" they were drowning out the president's supporters, who were more numerous, Luntz said. "It was a real problem."
Bush was asked about the anger in a recent interview on NBC and said he found it perplexing and disappointing. "When you ask hard things of people, it can create tensions. And heck, I don't know why people do it," he said.
His campaign spokesman, Terry Holt, dismisses the anger as something stoked by Democratic presidential candidates and confined to core party activists. He said it also reflects Democratic frustration at Bush's success in pushing through his agenda.
John McAdams, a political scientist at Marquette University, said resentment of Bush is particularly strong among liberals who already hold three things against him: "First, he's a conservative. Second, he's a Christian. And third, he's a Texan. When you add all of those things up, that invokes pretty much every symbol of the cultural wars."
"It's particularly galling when somebody who mangles his syntax and doesn't pronounce words extremely well and is from Texas beats you," McAdams added.
Some of the anger at Bush stretches back to his 2000 election, when the president lost the popular vote but took the majority of electoral votes after the Supreme Court stopped a recount in Florida.
"It's the long view of Bush in the minds of Democrats," said pollster Kohut. "He came into office in a way that they felt was unfair. They gave him the benefit of the doubt and rallied to him after the 9-11 attacks for some time, and then he disappointed them in the way he dealt with Iraq" and by pursuing a more conservative course than they expected.
A Bush opponent can vote against the president only once in November, no matter how intense the anger. So does it matter how much voters dislike him, if these are people who would have voted against him anyway?
Political analysts say the intensity of the anti-Bush sentiment could translate into higher turnout by mobilizing the Democratic base. The possible pitfall for Democrats, however, is that strident anti-Bush rhetoric could turn off swing and independent voters who like Bush personally but might be convinced through reasoned argument that his policies are wrongheaded.
"Anger is not necessarily a productive emotion when it comes to politics," Luntz said. "The anger against Bill Clinton was so fierce and over the top that it helped him in 1996 and then again during the impeachment in 1998. People got more angry at those yelling at the president than at the president himself. You could easily see the same thing happening here."