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Third Year Testing

Julius Caesar was warned: “Beware the Ides of March.” Our modern presidents should be warned: “Beware the third year.” Why, that’s the presidential year George W. Bush has just begun! The third year is among the times that try presidents’ souls. Take a look at our new analysis of the Gallup Poll trends for presidents since Lyndon B. Johnson…

Take a look at the Gallup Poll trends (above) for Presidents since Lyndon B. Johnson (with Gerald Ford, who didn’t have a full third year, excluded.)

Johnson: Year 3, 1966, was LBJ’s turning point. Vietnam and domestic problems eroded his public backing from the 70s to the 40s by the third year. Johnson never made a comeback and was all but forced from office in 1968.

Nixon: Year 3, 1971, was arguably the genesis of Nixon’s Waterloo. President Nixon fell below 50 percent for the first time and was losing to major Democrats in the 1972 horserace match-ups. The dawn of much of Watergate’s shenanigans can be found in the White House’s 1971 panic. Nixon’s landslide ’72 reelection merely obscured his approaching fate.

Carter: Year 3, 1979, was the real beginning of Carter’s collapse, and he ended the first half of the third year at a dismal 29 percent approval. Americans had caught on to Carter’s unsuitability for the presidency, and economic troubles had begun to overtake him. The “rally ’round the president” effect briefly revived Carter after Iran seized the American hostages in November 1979 but the die for Carter’s failed one-term presidency was already cast.

Reagan: Year 3, 1983, actually pushed “The Gipper” lower in the polls for longer than the Iran-Contra scandal did in year 7. The severe recession of 1982-83 dropped President Reagan in the low 40s, and the usual Beltway pundits were declaring his term a “failed presidency.” But a booming economy changed that assessment radically in 1984.

Bush I: Year 3, 1991, marked one of the most massive polling collapses ever. Thanks to a victory in the Persian Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush shot up to 90 percent briefly, and ended the first half of the year at 74 percent. By the recessionary conclusion of year 3, Bush had fallen to 46 percent, on his way to a humiliating 38 percent of the vote in November 1992.

Clinton: Year 3, 1995, started badly at 47 percent approval and ended worse at 42 percent. President Clinton’s disastrous initial two years had produced the first GOP Congress since the early 1950s, and he was widely written off for reelection in 1996. Then the Republicans overreached with the late 1995 government shutdown, and the economy rebounded just in time for the lucky Arkansan.

So what does all this suggest for George W. Bush’s Year 3 (2003)? It will be amazing if Bush doesn’t hit a new Gallup poll low sometime in year 3. The third year is among the times that try presidents’ souls. A victory in the expected war with Iraq will likely produce a healthy polling bump for Bush, but it will probably be gone well before the year’s end. Year 3 tends to separate the real presidential men from the pseudo presidential boys. Some presidents (Johnson, Carter, Bush I) were unable to recover from that year’s awful tribulations. Others (Reagan, Clinton) appeared to be strengthened by their time of testing, partly because of their sympathetic personae with whom many voters could identify. One president, Nixon, merely staved off disaster past the next election.

So into which category will George W. Bush fall? Look again to our key election indicators for clues. And it also should be said that Bush II has consistently and carefully studied and avoided the failures of Bush I. Can this continue in Bush II’s post-war period in year 3? Studying counts, but the final examination will be held in November 2004.