WASHINGTON -- If George Bush succeeds in holding onto his coveted Pennsylvania Avenue address for another four years, he'll be the first president in modern history to have won a second term with so many people disapproving of his job performance at this stage in the election year.
A look at several national polls for early June, five months from Election Day, shows that only 30 percent to 38 percent of Americans approve of the job Mr. Bush is doing as president. Throughout the history of polling, only Jimmy Carter, who lost his bid for re-election in 1980, was charting approval ratings near 30 percent in the spring of his re-election year. (Gerald R. Ford, another defeated incumbent, was receiving 45 percent job approval in June 1976.)
And only Harry S. Truman, whose Gallup Poll approval ratings in June 1948 hovered around 40 percent, has won re-election to the White House with figures below 50 percent.
"I don't see anybody who's been this low and been re-elected," says Karlyn H. Keene, opinion analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.
If this were a typical year, says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, "George Bush would be gone."
But, of course, it isn't. And he isn't. While clearly in the danger zone, the president is far from fatally wounded, pollsters and political scientists say.
Although there are more polls than ever this year, they may actually tell us less than ever. The precedent-setting nature of the 1992 presidential campaign -- never before has a third-party candidate climbed to second place in the polls, much less the lead -- has turned public opinion polls into enigmatic and blurry election barometers at best.
At the same time, they have had an especially heavy hand in driving the campaign. The momentum of Texas billionaire Ross Perot, for one thing, has been fueled almost entirely by national polls that now pronounce the still-undeclared candidate the front-runner.
"If it weren't for national polls, Ross Perot wouldn't be in the position he's in now," says Larry Hugick, managing editor of the Gallup Poll.
But while these numbers continue to propel the Perot near-candidacy, they are confounding political veterans like some sort of new math.
Conventional wisdom suggests that any president who falls into disfavor with more than half the electorate should be sending out resumes. But the highly unconventional three-way race has not only changed the arithmetic, it has changed every possible equation.
"Normally, in a two-way race, he'd be likely to lose," Mr. Hugick says of the outlook for the president. "But in a three-way race, who can say?"
Presidential historian William E. Leuchtenburg of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, says, "I'm more impressed by the unique character of this election than by the way it fits into historical patterns."
Mr. Leuchtenburg, too, is wary of using any poll as a crystal ball this year. But while he compares the sour attitude toward Mr. Bush with similar disenchantment with Truman, who won re-election despite a poor showing in the polls, he believes the feisty Missouri Democrat had a lifeline that today's Republican incumbent lacks.
"A lot of attention was paid to Truman's pluck in that campaign: going out to meet the people, 'Give 'em hell, Harry,' the whistle-stop tour," he says. "But the single greatest explanation for his success in that election was that he was running as the candidate of the majority party. Bush doesn't have that."
But what Mr. Bush has is an opponent of that majority party, Gov. Bill Clinton, who's thought of as unfavorably as the incumbent is, according to polls, and a formidable third-party challenge from Mr. Perot, currently running ahead of both major party candidates.
"With a truly competitive three-way race, we're all going to have to relearn what we're seeing out there and what it all means,"
says Republican pollster Ed Goeas. "I don't think either the Clinton or Bush campaigns have re-adjusted to that."
nTC For one thing, Mr. Goeas says, a 38 percent approval and 58 percent disapproval rating -- Mr. Bush's scores in a national poll published by Mr. Goeas and Ms. Lake last week -- does not necessarily mean defeat in a three-way race as it might in a two-way race. "If your two opponents split the 58 percent 50/50, you're still higher with 38."
And Ms. Keene points out that, despite his dismal approval numbers, Mr. Bush still beats Mr. Clinton in polls that look at a two-way race between the probable party nominees. "There's some kind of strength there or incredible Clinton weakness," she says.
Also clouding the picture is the volatility of a public that, over the past 18 months, has yielded some of the highest and some of the lowest approval ratings for any president -- from around 90 percent during the Persian Gulf war to today's low in the 30s -- and thus, an unprecedented fall from favor.
"Approval ratings seem to fluctuate more than they did in the past," says Georgetown University political scientist Stephen Wayne. "People seem less anchored than in the past."
Ms. Keene also believes today's electorate pays less attention to politics and government than it did 20 years ago and only "tunes in episodically," making such poll findings as job approval "a better indicator of the mood of the moment" than of the election.
Poll takers say the Perot groundswell is an especially tricky phenomenon to track. "Half of it is support and half of it is protest so it's hard to know how much is real," says Ms. Lake, whose partner is Mr. Clinton's chief pollster. "The voters themselves aren't sure what they're doing."
A constant third-place showing in the polls has reportedly taken a toll on Mr. Clinton's fund-raising ability in recent weeks. And earlier this month, as Mr. Clinton won the California primary -- and clinched the delegates he needed to win the Democratic nomination -- it was Mr. Perot, not even on the ballot, who was declared the hero of the day. Exit polls showed that substantial numbers of Democrats and Republicans would have voted for the Texas businessman had he been on the ballot.
Mr. Goeas suggests that such polls have "reinforced the gut instincts" of voters who find Mr. Perot appealing and made it more acceptable for them to break from party ranks and support the political maverick.
It is all new territory, adds the GOP pollster. "I don't fault Clinton and Bush for not quite knowing what to do next."