The Baehr Essentials
A food fight has broken out among a few political pundits as to the validity of recent polls by Time and Newsweek which appear to show a large growing lead for President Bush. The two surveys, conducted during the GOP convention or shortly thereafter, each show Bush ahead by 11%. A new Gallup poll out Monday gives Bush a 7 point lead . The pundits should relax. Between now and Election Day there will probably be a hundred new national surveys and many hundreds of state polls to obsess over. Only on Election Day will we know for certain what percentage of the national electorate who voted were Democrats, Republicans and Independents, and their degree of loyalty to the two candidates.
My own sense is that Bush has grabbed the lead, probably by between 4 and 7%. What this means is that Kerry is still ahead in the safe Kerry states like New Jersey and California, but now by less than 10% instead of by more than 10% as in August. And in states that lean Kerry, such as Michigan or Oregon, Kerry is probably ahead by less than 5%, whereas in early August, he was ahead by more than 5%.
On the other hand, states in which Kerry was ahead by less than 5% are beginning to trickle over to the Bush column, with the President now holding small leads. This appears to have occurred in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and New Mexico in the past two weeks, and in other battlegrounds, such as Minnesota and Iowa, the race is now about even. The importance of this can be seen in the routes of the candidates in the post convention period.
The Democrats are now defending their turf (states Gore won), to a greater extent than the Republicans are defending theirs (the states Bush won in 2000). Both campaigns are spending a lot of time and money in three states Bush won last time —— Ohio, West Virginia and Florida, and 5 states Gore won —— Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and New Mexico. While both campaigns talk about 18 to 20 battleground states, the reality is that many of these states have already begun to fall into place for one candidate or the other.
On the Bush side the good news is that the Democrats are not campaigning or spending much money in Tennessee, Louisiana or Arkansas. After talking up their prospects in Virginia and North Carolina, neither state is getting any new Kerry campaign ads. With the exception of Florida, the South will almost certainly be solid for Bush again, as it was in 2000. It is also telling that Kerry is making much more of a personal effort in West Virginia with its 5 Electoral College votes than in Missouri with its 11. When Kerry led the national race by a few points, Bush was even or ahead in Missouri by a few points. With Bush likely ahead nationally by 5 or more points today, his lead in Missouri will certainly have grown.
On the other hand, Washington and Oregon seem more firmly for Kerry in 2004 than they were for Gore in 2000. Keeping Nader off the Oregon ballot matters, since loony lefties make up a sizable portion of all voters in Portland and Multnomah County. While a few surveys show Michigan for Kerry by only 2 or 3 points, if Bush is ahead by 5 or 6 points nationally and still behind in Michigan, it is clear that he will not need Michigan to get re—elected, and if he wins Michigan, it will likely be part of a national sweep. If Bush were to win in November by more than 5 points he would likely pick up several Gore states, and be competitive in several others. A sweep of all the possible pickup states could take Bush to 359 Electoral College votes (Maine, Oregon, New Mexico, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania). But I do not expect this to happen.
So the problem for Kerry is that he has now dropped behind in a few Gore states for the first time this year, after leading in several Bush states for much or part of the last year. Only in New Hampshire is Kerry now ahead in a red state, and no recent poll is out in New Hampshire to show if Bush's national surge has cut into that lead, as I expect it has. At one time or another in the past few months, Kerry has been ahead in at least one poll in many red states, including Ohio, Florida, Missouri, New Hampshire, West Virginia, Nevada, Arkansas, Arizona, Tennessee, and even in Colorado.
So the complexion of the race has changed quite dramatically. Kerry must now defend Gore states, and has fallen behind in Bush states where he was once very competitive. Bush can aggressively go after more blue states, since he is in better shape in the states he won last time.
The election is by no means over and decided. There are still debates ahead, which probably represent Kerry's best chance to fight back into the lead. In 2000, as a result of the Presidential debates Bush moved from a few points behind Gore to a few points ahead. That happened because some voters were turned off by Gore's arrogance (or the sighing and his repetition of the need for an 'ironclad lockbox'), and others came to respect or like Bush a bit more. The debates will be more an opportunity for Kerry, the lesser known of the two candidates to most voters, than for Bush. Between now and then, Kerry will need to sound less whiny, and show some traces of human warmth. Assuming that these alterations lie within the realm of the possible.
External events could also influence the electoral outcome, and we can be sure that terrorists in Iraq, and elsewhere, and perhaps in America itself, will try to strike a blow against Bush, the candidate who has taken the war to them the past three years. The greatest risk to Bush would probably be from a big spike in the casualty numbers in Iraq, particularly a single event that caused a heavy American death toll. Al Qaeda and its affiliated terror groups are counting on Americans behaving as the Spanish voters did in March after the hideous train bombings in Madrid. But I think Americans have substantially more spine, and, not for the first time, al Qaeda will have succeeded only in provoking American resolve to destroy it.
Kerry, heeding Bill Clinton's message to focus on the economy, health care, education and the environment, will work these issues. But unless there is a disastrous jobs report in the next month (the only one left before Election Day), these issues will not decide the election. The Republican National Convention was very successful in strengthening Bush's job approval, and his ratings on leadership and the war on terrorism. And the Convention was also successful in making these issues once again the main focus of voters. Kerry wasted his Convention focusing on Viet Nam, which was not going to get him elected, and to some extent legitimized the Swift Boat Veterans' attacks on him, which followed it.
Bush now has the edge, and his successful Convention has given him momentum. Most voters think he will win, as do most bettors. The poll results that have been widely broadcast serve to reinforce that momentum —— that Kerry is sputtering (wind surfing?) and Bush is sailing along to victory. Kerry is sounding very whiny on the campaign trial, while Bush seems to have hit a more confident stride. The liberal press may be preparing for the story of comeback Kerry, but this is not Massachusetts, and it is not a race for the Senate. And Karl Rove seems a few steps ahead of Bob Shrum, who has never yet advised a winning Presidential contender.
We are two months out and Bush is in a lot better shape than he was two weeks ago or a month ago, when a collection of pundits —— Charlie Cook, Larry Sabato, and John Zogby among them —— all said the race was now Kerry's to lose. In 2000, a better Democratic ground game may have moved a few states into the Gore column in the last few days (Wisconsin, Iowa, Oregon and New Mexico), and enabled Gore to catch up with Bush in Florida. The GOP has gotten a lot better at playing a ground game in the last few years: witness the 2002 Congressional and Senate races. All in all, Kerry has some serious work to do.