Iraq, Israel, and the Electoral College

The Baehr Essentials

President Bush has slipped in most national poll the past few weeks.  These polls sample 600 to 1,000 voters, typically over the course of three days.  The average of the various recent polls give Senator Kerry about a 2 to 4 per cent lead in a head to head race with President Bush, and the race is approximately even with Ralph Nader included.  Most of the polls include tallies both with and without Ralph Nader.  The polls with Nader included tend to show Kerry dropping a few points and Bush dropping only slightly. Nader polls about 4% on average in these polls.

The Nader vote is unreliable. In 2000, with the backing of the Green Party, Nader was still able to win only 2.7% of the national vote. This year, he needs to gain 1.5 million names on signed petitions to give him as much ballot access as the Greens were able to deliver to him last time. As in 2000, we will probably have a close national election. Some Democrats and leftists will be chastened by the 2000 experience when they voted their hearts (or their spleen) and not their heads, and will stay away from Nader this time. My guess is that if Nader stays in the race, he is at best a 1% player in November, not much more than the Libertarian Party tends to pull away from the Republican candidate. 

As a result, I tend to believe the poll results without Nader  more than those with Nader included, since the Nader vote  provides an unrealistic boost to President Bush.  The Rasmussen Daily Tracking Poll (released at 12 noon each day), ignores Nader, and shows a 1% Bush lead on April 15th.  But this poll has also shown remarkable stability in the national numbers over the past six weeks, since Kerry became the all but certain nominee for his party. Either candidate is up or down a few points a day, but on almost all days, the candidates have been  within 2 per cent of each other, or within the margin of error of the poll. This longer term daily tracking trend is a more reliable indicator of how the race is developing than a once in every two week poll.

As could have been predicted, Bush has suffered as the Iraq casualty count has climbed. The 9/11 Commission and the Richard Clarke media storm have had much less effect, despite efforts by Democrats to hurt Bush through this process. There is beginning to be a reaction to the preening 'Jersey girl' widows, with their rudeness and media hunger.  New attention is being focused on a Democratic member of the panel, Jamie Gorelick, who as Assistant Attorney General for President Clinton, may be the individual who was most responsible for creating the bureaucratic obstacles that prevented the intelligence services from 'connecting the dots' before 9/11.

But Iraq is a political problem for Bush that is not going way.  America has suffered its highest weekly casualty count since the invasion of Iraq occurred thirteen months ago. Today the New York Times printed a full page collection of photographs of those who died last week. Never one to miss an opportunity to influence a national election in its news pages, the Times can be counted on to print more of these, particularly if the casualty count remains high. Since most other newspapers are much lazier than the Times, expect them to borrow the photos from the Times, and highlight the dead soldiers from their states. 

The recent stepped up fighting in Iraq appears to have shifted 3—5% of the vote away from Bush. It is too early to tell whether the President's news conference this week, stabilized his numbers. Americans have demonstrated much greater resilience in the face of the Iraq war casualties than many analysts had any reason to expect. We may have become a somewhat hardened, tougher people since 9/11. But if the death toll in Iraq remains from 50 to 75 a week, then sometime in May, it will pass 1,000 since the war began. And it will hit 2,000 by election day in November.  These numbers will get lots of attention.  This casualty count will matter more, in my opinion, in determining the winner in November than any other set of numbers we will likely see— such as the economic indicators, inflation rates, GDP growth, jobs created, or unemployment rates, for instance. 
The Iraq situation has competing pulls on the voter. The more Americans are seen to be in a fight with foreign fighters (Islamic extremists) in Iraq, the more Americans will see a connection between Iraq and 9/11, regardless of the strength of that tie before 9/11, or before the Iraq invasion began. That helps the President. But if the casualty count stays high, or even increases, many voters may begin to question whether we have control of the situation, and whether we can 'win' there, whatever that means in this conflict.

That is why I believe the President is sticking to the 6/30/04 deadline for a turnover of authority to some kind of Iraqi control. Exactly what that control will be, is today unclear. But if no turnover occurs, then the doubts about what we are trying to accomplish will only grow. Americans believe in self—reliance, and accept that Iraqis need to determine their own fate. Tom Friedman suggests that the Iraqi army will be more serious about its role when it has primary authority.  As tendentious as Friedman often is in writing about Israel, he has been more steadfast on the effort in Iraq and its importance for the greater Arab and Muslim world.

This raises the subject of Israel, and the electoral impact of yesterday's Sharon Bush press conference. The Bush policy shift on Palestinian refugees and Israeli settlements in the West Bank should, and I believe, will play well among both Jewish voters and Christian evangelicals, for whom support for Israel has become a bedrock issue.  Bush has been the strongest supporter of Israel of any American President since the state was created. It will, I believe, lead to a significant movement of Jews to Bush in the Presidential race. But it is in the electoral college, where this shift will rally matter, particularly in three states: Florida, Pennsylvania and Nevada. The election winner, as some Americans learned for the first time in 2000, is determined by the electoral college, not the winner of the popular vote

Al Gore won 81% of the Jewish vote nationally in 2000, according to various exit polls. In Florida, with its concentration of elderly liberal Jewish voters, most of whom moved from the Northeast, Gore's percentage of the Jewish vote may have been as high as 85%. With about 400,000 Jewish voters in the 2000 election in the state, Gore enjoyed a net margin of perhaps 280,000 votes over Bush just among Jews in Florida (70% of 400,000). Credit Joe Lieberman with creating great enthusiasm for the Gore ticket and putting the state in play. This time, John Kerry will be running without Lieberman, and  Bush is widely seen as a great friend of Israel. Assuming Kerry wins 65% of the Jewish vote in Florida, that would translate into only a 30% net margin, or 120,000  votes. With this one change, Bush has effectively picked up 160,000 net votes from the position he achieved with Jews in Florida in 2000.  Remember Bush carried the state by 537 votes last time (he did not steal it). I think Bush might do even better than 35% among Jews this time around. But in any case, Bush starts out in a much stronger position in Florida.

The latest Rasmussen poll in Florida gives Kerry a 1 point lead, without Nader in the race. Other polls show Bush ahead in Florida.  I think Florida will prove to be not as competitive this time around. Jeb Bush won re—election by 13% in 2002, and the state may be a bit more Republican leaning than it was in 2000.   Bush has also done something very smart in Florida— he has assigned Ralph Reed to run his campaign in the state. Reed delivered a stunning sweep for the GOP of all the major races in Georgia in 2002, and his organizational wizardry is probably worth a few points for Bush.

Pennsylvania has been the biggest pickup target for the Bush campaign. Bush has visited the state more than any other since he was elected. Gore carried it by almost 5%, but the latest poll shows Bush ahead by 6%, though this result is over a week old. Pennsylvania has almost as high a percentage of Jewish population as Florida (about 3%, compared to almost 4% in Florida). Assume 200,000—250,000 Jewish voters.  A 30% net shift in the Jewish vote (say 35% for Bush, instead of 20%) could be a net 60,000 to 75,000 vote improvement for Bush compared to 2000.   That might be enough to tip what is likely to be a very competitive state.

Nevada is a state that Bush won by only 4%, or 22,000 votes in 2000. It has the fastest growing Jewish population in the country (almost 5% of the state population today).  The shift in the Jewish vote will bolster Bush in a competitive race here as well. 

The latest state polls show that only in Florida is Kerry ahead in a state Bush won, and in this case by only 1%.  The two are tied in West Virginia, another state Bush won. Bush on the other hand is ahead in several states Gore won: Oregon, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and amazingly, even New Jersey (I don't expect this one to stay that way, though a shift in Jewish voters here is probably also helping Bush). In several states that Bush won by small margins in 2000, he is ahead by decent percentages in the latest state polls: Missouri, New Hampshire, Nevada, Arizona and Tennessee.  Bush leads narrowly in Ohio, probably the best target for a Kerry pickup among the states Bush won narrowly in 2000.

The disconnect between the state polls and the national polls reflects a trend discussed here a few weeks back —— that the Bush ads have been effective in defining Kerry, before he had a chance to define himself. Listen to Jay Leno any night and Kerry is being portrayed as a gigolo who marries very rich women, and as a candidate who can't make up his mind. These are devastating images for a potential leader of a country at war.

I think that the hidden factor in this election will be the two first lady candidates. Laura Bush is a quiet, modest reassuring figure for families and married women. Teresa Heinz Kerry, on the other hand,  may come off as arrogant, obscenely wealthy, and a bit strange, never mind her far left politics.

Expect to see more and more of Laura Bush in ads, and on the campaign trail.