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Parsing the Polls

The presidential election remains closer than most people realize.

The Bush-Cheney '04 campaign is one of the best-planned and best-executed presidential campaigns in modern history -- up there with the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign, which upset the re-election hopes of President Bush's father. And not since the 1984 Republican convention, which renominated President Reagan, has there been a national convention that's managed its message as well as the GOP's gathering did this year.

On the other hand, the economy isn't nearly as strong as one might have expected a year ago; the war in Iraq has not gone nearly as well as the White House predicted; and Bush has not been able to dramatically outspend his Democratic challenger.

Still, over the past month, the momentum has shifted away from John Kerry and toward Bush. This election is far from over, however, and it remains closer than most people realize. The current conventional wisdom that Kerry is in deep trouble seems to stem from a Time magazine poll conducted on Tuesday through Thursday of the GOP convention (August 31-September 2) and a Newsweek poll conducted on that Thursday and Friday (September 2-3). Both indicated that Bush held an 11-point lead.

Other polls paint a different picture. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll taken on the weekend after the convention (September 3-5) put the Bush lead at 7 points, 52 percent to 45 percent, among likely voters. Among registered voters, Bush was ahead by just 1 percentage point. Meanwhile, a telephone survey by Zogby International, conducted on Monday through Thursday of the convention (August 30-September 2), showed Bush ahead by 3 points, 46 percent to 43 percent. A survey by ARG (the American Research Group) found the race tied at 47 percent. The latter two polls included Ralph Nader.

Of course, each of these polls is flawed. The Time, Newsweek, Zogby, and ARG surveys included interviews conducted before Bush gave his acceptance speech and thus don't fairly indicate how voters reacted to the entire convention. The Gallup Poll was conducted over Labor Day weekend. Getting a representative sample is difficult on any weekend but especially so on a holiday weekend. So, the polls that come out in the next few days will likely be a better gauge of the state of play in this contest.

Bush campaign officials say they think the president's lead was 5 or 6 points last weekend and is now about 4 or 5 points. A former Republican National Committee chairman privately expressed concern to me that some polls have vastly overstated Bush's lead.

What has helped Bush? My sense is that the relentless attacks by the Swift Boat Veterans group significantly tarnished Kerry. He has lost considerable ground in his effort to be viewed as a true leader. Although the Kerry campaign eventually did a very credible job of neutralizing, if not discrediting, many of the allegations, Kerry lost a pint or two of blood in the meantime. The slowness of the Kerry team's deliberative process prevents the campaign from effectively answering broadsides before serious damage is done.

A second problem is that the Democrats squandered a major convention opportunity. While Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama's speech impressively launched his national career, did it move Kerry one millimeter closer to winning the White House? Short answer: No.

One way of looking at this race is that Bush has two strengths: terrorism and leadership. He has two major liabilities: domestic issues (specifically, the economy, health care, and drug prices) and the federal budget deficit. One key issue, education, neither hurts nor helps Bush. And the war in Iraq fluctuates between having no effect on Bush's chances and being a liability for him.

Here's another way to describe the situation: If the campaign spotlight ends up shining on Bush, Bush loses. If it focuses on Kerry, Kerry loses.

The final question is what will shape the final seven weeks of this presidential campaign. U.S. casualties in Iraq continue to rise. We passed the 1,000-fatality mark last Tuesday. Meanwhile, the U.S. economy is still sputtering, and some key states show few signs of recovery. If the economy and the situation in Iraq are the focus of the debate in the coming weeks, this race will still be a nail-biter, and Kerry will probably have the advantage. If, instead, the focus is on Kerry, terrorism, or leadership, Bush will likely go on to clinch the second term that escaped his father.

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