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Currying Favor

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Before Sen. John Edwards became John Kerry's running mate, President Bush and the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee had been running neck and neck for an amazingly long time -- nearly three months. In national polls, Bush and Kerry had each been fairly consistently getting the support of about 45 percent -- give or take 3 points -- of the electorate.

Just as consistently, independent candidate Ralph Nader, who is often included in national polls even though it's unclear how many state ballots he'll get on, attracted 3 to 6 percent of the vote.

Only hours after tapping Edwards, Kerry began benefiting from the expected bounce in the polls, although it was not as large as the 15-point surge that Bush campaign strategist Matthew Dowd says has historically been the norm. Dowd's figure may well be correct, but today's unprecedented level of partisan polarization -- which cleaves the nation almost exactly into halves -- means that there were few Democrats left for Kerry to pick up. Virtually everyone in his party had already "come home."

Gallup surveys taken shortly before Edwards was chosen found that Kerry already was attracting 82 to 86 percent of the Democratic vote and was losing only 5 to 9 percent to Bush. And because Republicans are unusually galvanized this year, giving Bush 86 to 90 percent of their support, Kerry isn't likely to gain many Republican defectors. Rather, whatever gains Kerry makes are likely to be the result of independents' choosing to side with him.

After the Republican convention ends in early September, Bush will no doubt get a boost as well, though it is likely to be smaller, because incumbent bounces tend to be, and because this year there are few loose swing voters to grab. A week or 10 days after the GOP convention, the electorate should have stopped bouncing and settled back down enough for horse-race poll results to once again have some real meaning.

In the meantime, Bush has plenty of reason to worry. A three-month-long tie with a challenger is not heartening for any incumbent. Well-known, well-defined incumbents normally end up getting at most only one-quarter to one-third of the undecided vote. Voters are well acquainted with a president when a re-election campaign begins. And there is little that either party can do to alter most voters' opinions of the president at that point.

Voters who now consider themselves "undecided" have already made a tentative decision not to support the incumbent; the remaining decision is whether to vote for the main challenger.

Bush's team also ought to fear that Nader's support, which now resembles his pre-election numbers of four years ago, will very likely shrink even more than it did last time, when he ended up with 2.7 percent of the vote. Anecdotal evidence abounds of people who supported Nader in 2000 but who now say they won't support him again because they believe that Nader cost the Democrats the election in 2000. In that election, other independent or third-party candidates, including Pat Buchanan, netted a combined fourth-tenths of 1 percent of the vote. Given the absence of a minor candidate as well-known as Buchanan, and the closeness of the 2000 contest, and the nation's more intense polarization, the two major parties are likely to draw even more of the overall vote than in 2000. And that will likely help Kerry more than Bush.

As for the Nader vote, Voter News Service exit polls in 2000 indicated that had Nader not run, 47 percent of his supporters would have instead cast their ballots for Democrat Al Gore, 21 percent would have supported Bush, and the remaining 30 percent either would not have voted or would have supported someone else.

In short, we are expecting an even smaller third-party and independent vote than last time, and expecting Kerry to be the beneficiary of that shift.

Job Evaluations

A completely different way of looking at the race, but one that nevertheless reaches a very similar conclusion, involves focusing on Bush's job-approval ratings instead of the horse race poll numbers. A presidential election is first and foremost a referendum on the incumbent. This fact makes a president's overall job-approval rating a better gauge of the share of the vote he's likely to receive than any other measure, including pre-election trial heats. In recent presentations to Democratic audiences, Clinton White House political director Doug Sosnik has pointed out that in the four most recent presidential re-election campaigns -- those of Jimmy Carter (1980), Ronald Reagan (1984), George H.W. Bush (1992), and Bill Clinton (1996) -- the incumbent's job-approval ratings were showing "clear and unambiguous" patterns by June. "At this point in the previous four incumbent presidential election cycles," Sosnik says, "the American public had made its mind up about whether to re-elect the incumbent. While the horse race numbers may fluctuate, the underlying dynamics were established by now and were reflected in the final vote on Election Day."

The current president's approval ratings have averaged 48 percent since March, which, if Sosnik's theory is accurate, is clearly too low to win re-election in a two-way race. In a three-way contest, the outcome depends upon the performance of the third candidate. If Nader and other minor candidates receive a combined 3 percent of the vote in November, 48 percent might be the lowest approval rating a president could have and win re-election -- and even then it might not be enough.

On the surface, this presidential race has been extremely stable for months. Underneath, much has changed. Foreign policy and the war in Iraq, which were Bush's strengths a year ago, have clearly become weaknesses. Even his approval ratings on fighting terrorism, long his strongest suit, have declined to the low-to-mid-50s. Polls suggest that Americans have come to see the war with Iraq and U.S. policies in the Mideast as inadvertently increasing the threat of terrorism in the United States.

A few weeks ago, the economy, which has been a millstone around Bush's neck for years, appeared to be turning around. And the big question seemed to be whether voters in such hard-hit states as Ohio or Michigan would recognize the change and give Bush credit for it on Election Day. But now the Labor Department has released employment reports for June, indicating that job growth was only half of what had been expected. And the job-growth figures for May and April were revised downward. While much had been made of the phenomenal level of job growth in March and the almost-as-impressive growth in April, it's become apparent that job growth has dropped for three consecutive months. Plus, gross domestic product was revised slightly downward for the first quarter. And an array of other economic statistics recently released suggest that the economy is not bouncing back nearly as impressively as had once been thought. This not only means that the economy won't likely become the asset that Bush hoped it would be; it also means that the chances of its remaining a significant liability in pivotal states, such as Ohio and Michigan, remain very high.

Meanwhile, many Americans continue to give Bush high marks for leadership and strength of conviction, but they think that he cares too little about the concerns of average people and too much for the interests of the rich and of corporations. Even though many partisan Democrats and liberals see Bush as loathsome, Democratic strategists concede that their polling and focus groups indicate that the party will gain little by attacking Bush's character. Among swing voters, there is a real openness to attacks on Bush's decisions and priorities, but attacks on Bush's character can backfire and shift undecided voters to his side.

Kerry's great strength lies in who he's not -- he's not Bush. Surveys indicate that a great many voters are planning to cast their ballots against Bush rather than for Kerry. As long as there is nothing about Kerry that prevents anti-Bush voters from giving him their votes, Democratic strategists confess to having little concern that their nominee isn't exciting the electorate. Yet it is safe to say that Democratic operatives would prefer to have voters willing to walk on hot coals to elect their nominee, rather than have voters simply supporting Anybody But Bush. Leading Democrats hope that Edwards and the Democratic convention will help Kerry connect with voters on a more human level. They point to how Gore surged ahead of Bush after selecting Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut as his running mate and after kissing his wife, Tipper, at the 2000 Democratic convention. Interestingly, they also point to Bill Clinton's surge after the 1992 Democratic convention. Some 1992 research indicates that many Americans knew little about Clinton, his background, and his family until A Place Called Hope aired at the convention and created a bond that helped him win the White House.

As these things go, Bush's campaign has been carried out nearly flawlessly thus far. Its advertising was very effective in raising doubts about Kerry on taxes, national defense, and consistency. Bush's re-election is in extreme danger because of the decisions, priorities, and actions of his administration, not because of strategic or tactical missteps made at the Bush-Cheney '04 headquarters in Arlington, Va.

Clearly, the decisions of George H.W. Bush had a lasting impact on the decision-making processes within his son's administration. In particular, the current administration is obsessed with the fact that Bush 41 lacked a committed conservative base and that he alienated this base by breaking his "no-new-taxes" pledge. The second Bush has worked hard to make sure that he does not make such a mistake. Still, one can question the wisdom of alienating the other side's base to the extent that he has, since anti-Bush fervor has given quite a boost to the Democratic presidential nominee -- witness the truly extraordinary level of money being raised to defeat Bush, an amount that virtually no one thought any Democratic candidate or group of independent committees could possibly raise. Those contributions are fueled by scorn for a Republican president unrivaled by anything since the days of President Nixon, post-Watergate.

At the same time, decisions that led to skyrocketing budget deficits and to a federal limitation on stem-cell research have alienated some conservative or moderate business-oriented voters who might naturally be sympathetic to a Republican president and be skeptical about a Massachusetts Democrat. One gets a sense that many voters who reside between the partisan and ideological 40-yard lines of American politics feel that the "compassionate conservative" who so assiduously courted them during the 2000 campaign has ignored or even alienated them since taking office. They apparently believe that Bush has chosen instead to reinforce his very conservative base.

At the same time, some observers think that if Kerry had as much personality as most ashtrays, he would have been ahead by 10 points even before picking Edwards or holding his national convention. While that assessment is probably a bit harsh, Kerry has had trouble connecting with voters on a personal and emotional level. If that's still true at the end of his convention, he'll have a real problem.

Kerry's critics argue that he did not win the Democratic nomination so much as former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri lost it. The two candidates effectively destroyed each other with a murder-suicide pact of attack ads in Iowa. Indeed, a fun parlor game is to ask, "If John Kerry had not mortgaged his house in December, who would be the Democratic nominee?" My answer is that Dean and Gephardt would have destroyed each other anyway, and that Edwards would very likely have won, almost by default. But Edwards would have been hamstrung by spending limits and very likely would have been beaten to a pulp by Bush campaign advertising (pro-Edwards "527" advertising by Moveon.org and the Media Fund would have been able to only partially offset GOP attack ads).

So regardless of whether one views this election as mainly a referendum on the incumbent or as a choice between Bush and Kerry, a simple test tells us a lot about how this race will likely unfold in the coming months. Ask yourself how many people you know who voted for Gore in 2000 but who are planning to vote for Bush this year, versus the number who voted for Bush in 2000 but who are planning to vote for Kerry. Outside of the pro-Israel community, there are very, very few Gore voters who appear likely to defect to Bush. But most people can name Bush voters who appear ready to switch their allegiance to Kerry.

In presidential elections, fundamentals matter a lot. How much the economy grows between now and Election Day and, more important, how much credit swing voters in swing states give Bush for any economic improvement will likely be critical to this campaign's outcome.

But even if the economy continues to rebound and Bush is given credit for it, developments in Iraq will be at least as important. Americans' support for the war and approval of the Bush administration's handling of the war have plummeted following the significant rise of U.S. casualties since April; the murder and mutilation of the four American contractors in Falluja; the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal; the beheading of American Nicholas Berg; the assassination of the leader of the Iraqi Governing Council -- just to mention a few horrifying incidents. And those declines in support have effectively offset any gains that Bush might otherwise have made because of improvements in the U.S. economy. How the economy and Iraq fare between now and November could not be more important to this election's outcome.

Some Democratic campaign strategists are predicting that the television airwaves in the autumn will be filled with ads attacking Bush and Republicans for their unpopular prescription drug benefit package for seniors. That issue could have some legs, but nothing else is likely to appear on the radar screen.

For now, the Big Ten states that will determine the outcome of this election are led off by Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida -- in that order. Indeed, one top Bush campaign strategist argues that the candidate who wins two out of those three will win the presidency. But almost as important are four other Midwestern states, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, and Wisconsin, along with two in the Southwest, Nevada and New Mexico, and one in the Northeast -- New Hampshire. For once, little New Hampshire just might get to play a real role in a general election.

 
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