Washington political analyst Charlie Cook predicts President Bush has a hard row to hoe to win a second term from an electorate that is evenly divided, polarized and uncertain about the direction the country is taking.

“This race will be very close,” Cook said to the mid-year meeting of the National Cotton Council in Asheville, N.C., recently. “Republicans should be very nervous.”

The power in this election, Cook said, resides with the 6 to 8 percent of the electorate who classify themselves as undecided. He said in races where the incumbent is well defined, undecided votes tend to go to the challenger.

“It they are not for the incumbent initially, they don't go for him (in the voting booth).”

Cook said recent polls indicate that 56 percent or more of registered voters believe the country is on the wrong track, and just 41 percent believe the country is heading in the right direction.

“That's not a good number (for the president). But I've seen it a lot worse, in July before George H. Bush lost the election, 72 percent of registered voters thought the country was on the wrong track.”

Of undecided voters, only 19 percent believe the country is headed in the right direction and 75 percent believe it's on the wrong track.

He said breaking polling figures down even further shows that 45 percent approve of the job President Bush is doing and 49 percent disapprove. But, among the undecided voters, approval rate is only 25 percent while disapproval is 68 percent.

Economy ratings

On the economy, surveys show a 46 percent approval rate vs. 52 percent disapproval. Among the undecided voters, 24 percent approve of the way President Bush is handling the economy and 69 percent disapprove.

“If President Bush gets one out of four undecided votes he will be lucky,” Cook said. “He needs to be three or four percentage points ahead on Election Day to win.” He said polls going into the Republican convention had Bush ahead (in three of four polls) by as much as 3 percentage points.

Cook said of the undecided voters, 43 percent consider themselves Democrats, 32 percent are Independents and only 25 percent claim to be Republican.

“Is the race over? No,” he said. “But something has to happen to change the dynamics of the race for Bush to win. Republican pollsters are worried about this race.”

But Cook said so far Bush has run a better campaign than Kerry. “Kerry has wasted a lot of money in states he can't win. Still, the contest is not shaping up well for President Bush.”

Cook said three states, Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio, could decide the presidency. “The candidate who wins two of the three will be president,” he said. “These are tightly contested states with huge blocks of electoral votes.”

Cook added a caveat to that scenario. “For instance, if Bush loses two of the three but wins Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, he can undo the damage.”

Nader effect

He said Ralph Nader would be less a factor than he was in 2000. “He only received 2 percent of the vote in Florida in the 2000 election, but received enough votes to make the difference. I expect Nader to get fewer votes but he still could be a factor. A big question will be how many states will put him on the ballot.”

Cook predicted the Republicans will retain control of both the House and Senate. “I think there is a 75 percent chance they'll hold the Senate and there is not a snowball's chance they'll lose the House,” he said.

Politically polarized

Cook said the last two elections have revealed a country that is more politically polarized than at any time since Richard Nixon's presidency.

“I thought that I would never live to see a president so hated by the other party as President Clinton was by the Republicans. I didn't have to live that long. I never heard of anyone who hated Reagan, the first President Bush, Jimmy Carter or Gerald Ford. You have to go all the way back to Nixon after Watergate and then back to FDR, that man in the White House, to find large numbers of one party who hated the president in the other party. Now, we've had back to back presidents (hated by the other party).”

Cook said the electorate views candidates and political events as they would a “partisan Rorschach test. (Both parties) see the same thing and draw diametrically opposite conclusions.”

He said President Bush's popularity began to wane before he took office. “He ran as a compassionate conservative and was likeable. Gore was the polarizing factor in the election. But foreigners couldn't stand George Bush. Then the Florida challenge began the hatred and galvanized Democrats.

“The situation got worse until Sept. 11, 2001. All was forgiven for 60 to 90 days, and then it all came back. The war (with Iraq) made it worse. The country was about 50-50 on the war. Now, Bush has become one of the most controversial and polarizing figures in the U.S. government in years.”

Bright assumptions

Many of his problems are not his fault, Cook said. A year ago, Republican strategists had little to fear. Cook said they were assuming immense good will from three tax cuts, low interest rates, a cheap dollar that encouraged exports and federal spending that would “jump start” the economy. They also assumed that by August 2004 the economy would be “rocking and rolling.”

They assumed that the war with Iraq would continue to go well and that they would find weapons of mass destruction.

“They thought they would be able to outspend Democrats by a wide margin. And they assumed that the Democrats would be their usual fractured selves. All those assumptions have gone astray,” Cook said.

Cook said the economy plays a significant role, especially with job losses.

Jobs lost in the 1991 and 1992 downturn came back and the economy was able to rebound quickly. “But 79 percent of the recent losses come from structural jobs such as textiles and steel. Those jobs are never coming back. You can't bring a shift back on at the plant if the plant's no longer there.”

Cook said it's currently politically incorrect to fight free trade, “but you can still be for free trade and believe some of our trade agreements are pretty dumb. We've made dumb agreements with countries we can't possibly compete against and come out the winner and we haven't gone back to fix them.”

Cook said jobs lost include college-educated jobs. “But India is doing well.”

Cook said for the United States economy to prosper: “We got to make stuff. We got to grow stuff. We got to create value in the United States.”

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com