A Bad Week for the President is a Mixed Week in the Polls

The Baehr Essentials

There are very mixed messages in the most recent polling for the Presidential election. Several surveys, particularly those that include Ralph Nader, continue to show a Bush lead of from 2 to 6 points. These include NBC News/Wall St. Journal, CBS, Quinnipiac, and Sacred Heart University (a new one for me). But the daily Rasmussen Tracking Poll, which does not specifically include Nader, tells a different tale. In one week, Bush has gone from a 4 point lead to a 4 point deficit in the Rasmussen Tracking Poll. 

The decline for Bush seems to begin the night of the Sixty Minutes program on Abu Ghraib.  Some of the national surveys include a poll with Nader and one without Nader. The without—Nader surveys always show Kerry doing better, as Nader pulls an average of about 5% when his name is offered, drawing support mostly from the Kerry total.  Kerry leads in most of the polls with Nader out of the question.

The Rasmussen Poll is an automated survey, which is a different approach than the phone surveys conducted by other organizations.  In recent years, polling organizations have had to call many more people to get the minimum number for their surveys. More and more people seem not to be interested in participating. The Rasmussen approach has a higher hit rate in attracting responses, perhaps because respondents would prefer not to have to talk to a pollster.  

The most recent state polls also suggest some slippage for the President.  In some states Bush won last time, he is now tied (Arkansas), or trailing (New Hampshire).  He is ahead in one Wisconsin survey, and behind in others.  Bush is ahead in a few Pennsylvania polls, and tied in another. Gore won both states in 2000.

For weeks, neither candidate has pulled into a decisive lead.  The events in Iraq this week (most notably the Abu Ghraib story) appear to have hurt the President. The polling on whether the country is going in the right direction or wrong direction now show a solid majority selecting the wrong direction. The support for the war in Iraq has also slipped. 

What appears to be holding Bush afloat is that he has a much higher personal approval rating than John Kerry. Part of this may reflect Kerry's relative newness to most people in the country. Finally this week, the Kerry campaign released some positive ads about their candidate in 19 'battleground' states to try to reverse the image of being a flip—flopper on major issues, a key theme of the early negative Bush ads about Kerry.

Several of the surveys also show that a significant part of the electorate has made up their minds about the race, and a relatively small portion of the electorate is really undecided. Matthew Dowd, a Bush strategist, told Brit Hume this week, that their surveys show that both Bush and Kerry can count on roughly 45% of the voting public. The other 10% are up for grabs. In this environment, a 4% win would be decisive, since it would mean that the undecided voters split by 2 to 1 for one candidate over the other.

The other point Dowd makes is that the country may be split 45—45—10, but there is no guarantee that each side will get its people to the polls in equal numbers.  In 2000, it was generally conceded that the Gore forces did a much better job than the Bush team in the closing days of the campaign, erasing a few point lead Bush had in the polls, and handing Gore a small popular vote victory.

In the 2002 congressional elections, the Republicans initiated a '72 hour' strategy that relied much more heavily on pulling their voters to the polls.  This enhanced ground game seemed to work —— the Republicans won the overall Congressional vote nationally by about 5%. This year, both parties are investing heavily in voter registration, and in setting up field operations for the period leading up to Election Day.  

John Zogby, the national pollster with the best track record in recent national elections, told a Republican gathering last week that the election was 'Kerry's to lose'. This message stunned many in attendance. But Zogby also noted that the last election was Gore's to lose, and lose he did.  Zogby's logic is that the election is a referendum on Bush, and most voters have made up their minds about Bush. To some extent, he has maxed out on his support level. Generally, those who are undecided late in a race, tend to split largely against the incumbent.  Zogby's surveys show real enthusiasm for Bush among his supporters, and real negativism about Bush among Kerry supporters. 

Zogby did not pick up any real enthusiasm for Kerry himself, however, among undecideds or Kerry supporters.  This is Kerry's opportunity, according to Zogby. Since he is the new face in the race, those who have not decided to back him, but who also have not in almost 4 years found a reason to support Bush, only need to be given a reason to support Kerry.

The risk for Kerry, and the worry for professional Bush—haters, such as the group which met to fret about the Presidential race at the home of Arianna Huffington this week, is that their candidate may be too dull, or uninviting to make the sale.  However, we are still six months from the election, and Kerry will be very well—funded in his effort to make himself more personally appealing to voters.

I continue to believe the election will be very close, and will likely be decided in only a handful of states (Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, the big three swing states in the large electoral college states, and West Virginia, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oregon and Wisconsin likely to be very close again among smaller states). I do not believe that there are really 19 battleground states. Some of the effort being made by one candidate in some of these states is really an attempt to force the other candidate to waste financial resources and time campaigning there. I think Bush is not likely to win Michigan or Washington, but wants to make Kerry work for these states. Similarly, Kerry is unlikely in the end to win Arkansas, or Louisiana, or Tennessee (Gore lost all three, and he was from the South) or Missouri, but putting ads on in these states, might force Bush to spend some time and money there. 

The campaign professionals will be put to the test this year.  The nation is closely divided politically, and the divisions between the two sides on all kinds of issues are quite sharp. We are no longer in an age of tweedle dum or tweedle dee.