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High Stakes

If 1997 was the most boring political year we've had in over two decades, 2004 is turning out the be one of the most fascinating.

This election is going to come down to whether President Bush can convince voters to re-elect him, or whether John Kerry can clear that threshold level of credibility and comfort that he needs to be the viable alternative.

While the Senate has become a legislative hospice, a place where bills go to die, there are still 10 or 11 very competitive races -- six seats held by Democrats and four or five held by Republicans. The 2000 and 2002 Senate race cycles were explosive. In 2000, Democrats unexpectedly picked up three seats while Republicans did the same in 2002.

In both cases, it looked likely that the parties would make considerably smaller gains, perhaps a seat or two, going into Election Day. With so many competitive races this time, we could see a blowout again -- in either direction -- though Republicans certainly seem to have an edge.

Meanwhile, it is absolutely true that House Democrats are building a bit of a headwind; they won a special election in Kentucky, and they are likely to win another in South Dakota, though the race is tightening up. They got a break when the weaker Republican candidate won a key open-seat primary in Nebraska.

There have been lots of developments going Democrats' way, but the challenge remains the same. Can House Democrats gain enough seats in 49 states to offset their seemingly inevitable losses in Texas, where a net loss of three would be considered a moral victory for Democrats while a loss of six would be total defeat?

Still, it is the presidential campaign that is dominating the attention, with President Bush's numbers taking a significant tumble since the end of April. From the beginning of March through the third week of April, President Bush's overall job approval ratings had ranged between 48 percent and 53 percent in 17 of the 20 major independent national polls. Starting April 23, there have been nine polls with the president's approval rating under 50 percent and in the last four, it was 46 percent or less. CNN/USA Today/Gallup put it at 46 percent, followed by a Pew Research Center at 44 percent and a Newsweek poll released a week ago that had it at 42 percent.

As one might expect, there has also been a change in trial heats. Most polls showed the race anywhere from even to President Bush up by a handful of points. In the newer polls, the range is between even and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., up by a handful of points. However, huge variances exist in two-way trial heats between Bush and Kerry and three-way trail heats that include Ralph Nader, and to a lesser extent between samples of registered or likely voters.

The Bush campaign's strategic advisor, Matthew Dowd, very rightly argued recently in USA Today that the president is in "a new zone." It's true that the presidents with high job approval ratings, 52 percent and up, at this point in the election year have won and those with 47 percent or less have lost. During the month of May of 1996, for example, President Bill Clinton's ratings ranged from 53 percent to 55 percent, President Ronald Reagan's ratings were between 52 percent and 54 percent in 1984.

But it is worth noting that both had had much lower ratings and were on the rise. In other words, the arrow was headed up. Presidents George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter were in the 40-percent to 41-percent and 38-percent to 43-percent ranges, respectively. Bush's ratings signaled a drop.

Recent polling on the "re-elect" question tells us that Americans tentatively have started to decide that they are not inclined to re-elect President Bush. At the same time, though, Kerry has not yet cleared the hurdle of acceptability -- there is something holding voters back. It might be personal; Kerry simply comes across as cool and voters don't seem to identify with him in any way. It also might be that the Bush campaign has done a masterful job of raising doubts about Kerry, using television ads to label him as a big tax-raiser, weak on defense and a 'waffler' who flip-flops on issues.

This election is going to come down to whether President Bush can convince voters to re-elect him, or whether Kerry can clear that threshold level of credibility and comfort that he needs to be the viable alternative. In some ways, this race is reminiscent of 1980, when voters had tentatively decided that they wanted to replace President Carter, but had grave reservations about Reagan. These doubts were resolved in Reagan's favor in the single debate five days before the election. A race that five days earlier had been "too close to call," turned into a ten-point rout. While the evenly divided and highly polarized electorate we have today makes a rout of any kind highly unlikely, each side has its "doubts" to overcome.

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