Why is Bush Pulling Ahead?

The Baehr Essentials

Last week the President's poll ratings suffered after fighting picked up between coalition forces and Shiite radicals in the south, and with Baathists and foreign jihadists in the Sunni triangle. But this week, the President's numbers shot up in virtually every poll (to 5% and 6% leads in some cases).  What is the explanation both for the volatility of the race, and the recent Bush improvement in the polling numbers?

To begin, the daily Rasmussen tracking poll suggests that the race has actually been quite stable for almost two months, with both Bush and Kerry tracking in the low to mid 40% range each day. In weekly polling (summing the seven day tracking of 500 voters each day), the two candidates have been within 2% of each other for 7 straight weeks. But in the most recent weekly survey, Bush jumped three points in this poll (from 1% behind to 2% ahead), reflecting the same rise as in the other polls. 

The Rasmussen poll, as I have pointed out in previous weeks, is of greater interest than other better known surveys, such as ABC/Washington Post, CNN/USA Today, or Newsweek, which interview only 1,000 voters over three days once every two weeks. The Rasmussen poll interviews seven times as many voters during each two week period. In addition, state polls, whether by Rasmussen, Zogby, or other in—state newspaper or polling groups, interview almost as many voters in a particular state as the best—publicized biweekly national polls do in the entire country.
The state polls had been pointing to a Bush pickup well before the national polls did. The state polls in the 18 battleground states where heavy advertising has already occurred, both by Bush and by the Kerry side, including his 527 support groups (moveon.org, American Coming Together, the Media Project), have been pointing to a Bush surge for several weeks.  Bush is ahead in every state he carried by 6% or less in 2000, and is also ahead of Kerry in several states that Gore won by small margins in 2000 (Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Oregon, New Mexico). 

For months, Democratic Party officials have expressed their concern that Bush, due to his record individual fundraising success (over $180 million collected to date), would bury Kerry in ad buys during the period between the primaries and the convention, much as Clinton did to Dole in 1996.   This has not occurred.  The Kerry campaign, including his 527 groups, have matched Bush's spending dollar—for—dollar so far this year.  Perhaps of greater interest, the combined fundraising by Kerry and the 527 groups doubled the Bush take in the first quarter of 2004 (approximately $100 million raised versus $50 million by Bush), insuring a competitive spending fight the rest of the way as well. Bush has been able to match the Democrats' spending this year only because of money carried over from his fundraising in 2003.

There is no small bit of hypocrisy associated with all this soft money going to the Democrats' 527 groups, given all the years the Democrats were crying about how soft money was corrupting the political process.  But tens of millions of dollars from George Soros, and from Hollywood's liberal activists can make hypocrisy a fairly easy thing to swallow when an election is on the line.

But while the ad spending levels have been comparable, the Bush ads seem to have worked far better than the Kerry ads or the anti—Bush ads by the Kerry support groups.  Why?  For one thing, Bush is far better known than Kerry, and many people have their minds made up about the President already, whether they like him or loathe him. Negative ads about Bush on TV have only marginal effect at this point. Will New York Times readers, and Democrats who believe the election of 2000 was stolen, hate Bush even more after seeing them? 

Most of the Bush ads have been about Kerry. Most of the Kerry ads have been about Bush. The media have been reporting this as if this were no more than a clash of early negative ads (tsk, tsk). In reality, by going negative early, Bush may have lured Kerry into going negative as well, and thereby wasting his campaign ads that might have been better spent offering a positive alternative vision (the 527 groups may have less leeway legally in how positive their ads can be about Kerry). 

By not using his ad money to build on the positive momentum of the primaries, and present a more positive vision, Kerry may have made a colossal blunder. It has allowed Bush to define Kerry before Kerry could define himself for voters. Today, Kerry's negative ratings in the battleground states are way up.  But the real reason Kerry may not have presented any kind of visionary message is because he has (so far at least) no vision to offer. Even some liberal journalists are catching on to this.

Kerry benefited from virtually nonstop positive free publicity during his run in the Democratic primaries.  He was a 'winner' every week. What people knew of him was success, and Americans love winners.  But very few Americans voted in the Democratic primaries, and the overwhelming majority of the country's voters have not yet seriously considered Kerry as a candidate.   For those who watched the Kerry campaign during the primaries, it tended to consist of two messages: 1) I am a war hero; and 2) Bush has been a disaster with everything he touched.  After locking up the nomination, and given the opportunity to present himself as the all but certain standard—bearer of his party, the Kerry message, in personal appearances as well as his ads, has focused on the second theme (Bush is bad, and I am not Bush), and not on who Kerry is, or what he is for. Kerry's interview with Tim Russert this week made this approach pretty evident. Kerry could not answer any policy question, except to talk about how bad Bush had been on that issue. So Kerry has positioned himself as the alternative candidate, if you don't like Bush. This may not be enough. 

The Bush ad campaign has done an effective job of introducing Kerry to Americans who don't know him. The Bush message has been two fold: 1) Kerry is a Massachusetts liberal (think Ted Kennedy) —— a big spender, and a tax raiser; and 2) Kerry can't make up his mind, and cannot be trusted to be decisive and strong on national defense. The single most devastating ad spot is the one where Kerry at a campaign rally tells the audience that 'I voted for it [$87 billion for Iraq] before I voted against it.'

National defense, homeland security, terrorism and war, are the big issues on voters' minds at the moment. The economy, despite a media and Democratic scare campaign over outsourcing of jobs to India or Mexico, is improving and growing rapidly. When war is the central news story every night, the President and his advisors and Cabinet members are on TV all the time, for free.  Polls show that most Americans very much liked Condoleeza Rice's testimony before the 9/11 Commission, and they did not like the aggressive bullying of her by some of the 9/11 Commission members, or Richard Clarke, for that matter.  Americans take some pride in the fact that an intelligent, educated, articulate black woman can be the principal foreign policy advisor and spokesperson for the President.

While Americans are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, Kerry has offered campaign sound—bites in which he spends his precious seconds of national exposure attacking George Bush, as the worst president ever. That is not what voters want to hear from a possible President. They would like to know what he might do differently in the very tough situation we are in, rather than just blame the guy who brought us here. 

When Kerry tries to differentiate himself from Bush on Iraq, within a few seconds, his answer usually involves the UN, and catering more to those nations which opposed or undermined the American diplomatic effort last year. At the same time, Kerry and other Democrats routinely dismiss the efforts of those countries that stood with us —— Australia, Britain, and Poland, for example (the 'fake' coalition some Democrats have called it) —— though these countries have suffered real losses of life.  

So those who stiffed us need to be groveled—to, and those who were allies are written off as tokens. This is simply not a winning message. American by and large believe that fewer Americans would have died in Iraq with greater burden—sharing from our allies, so they appreciate those who served with us, and resent to some extent those countries which refused. Clearing foreign policy decisions through Kofi Annan or Jacques Chirac, is not regarded as evidence of leadership, or smarts. 

This last item is one Democratic partisans are loathe to hear (or admit). But their candidate often gives the appearance of 'mailing it in,' of simply not wanting to be bothered by having to think hard or work diligently at getting elected President.  The Kerry mansions and ski vacations also create an image of a man living a life of leisure, separated from the rest of us, who have to work. 

Iraq matters very much in this election.  And here, Kerry and the Democrats have been very repetitive —— long on criticism, short on prescription: 1) The President lied or at least misled us about weapons of mass destruction; 2) There was no connection between Iraq and al Qaeda; and 3) We needed to internationalize our effort.

The events of the past few months have not strengthened the Democrats' case on these points. Bob Woodward's new book, rushed to press by Viacom, makes quite clear that Bush was a bit skeptical about the strength of the WMD claim, but CIA Director George Tenet assured him the evidence was a 'slam dunk.'  For most American this doesn't sound as if the President were trying to deceive them.  There are also a lot of statements on the record by a lot of Democrats, including Kerry and former President Clinton, about Saddam, his regime, and the danger from Iraq's WMD programs. Certainly Bush was not introducing a new theme to the debate about Iraq. 

On the terrorism front, it is pretty clear at this point that al Qaeda is operating in Iraq, as are all sorts of other nasty terrorist groups, such as Hizbollah, regardless of whether they were there before the war started.  If Iraq matters so much now to these bitter enemies of the US, for most Americans that fact strengthens the case for being there and fighting them.  Why do the jihadists care so much about driving us out of Iraq, if our effort was not so important in the war against terrorism?  If the US and coalition effort is successful, most Americans believe this would strike a blow against our enemies.

Of course the success of our effort in Iraq is not assured. As I argued a week ago, if American casualties remain very high on a weekly basis and progress is not evident, then popular support for the war effort might drop, and support for the President may erode.  But the Democrats have to offer an alternative vision, and so far Kerry has not done so. It is not enough for most Americans that he served in Viet Nam.  And trusting the UN or France is also not what most people want to hear.  Most Americans who do not read the New York Times regard faith in the UN as hopelessly nae.  Who are the rubes, one might ask?  I suspect that every time Kerry talks about the UN, he loses votes for his side. Every time he argues that we need to work with Germany, and France while waving his hand dismissively at the efforts of our allies, such as Britain, he loses more votes.  

The New York Times seems to believe the country today needs a leader who has nuanced (read: sophisticated) views. A majority of Americans seem to be saying they want a President who actually has views, especially if he is willing to fight for them.