Drawing Blood

The Baehr Essentials

A new Ohio Poll by ARG, released Thursday, gives Senator Kerry a 7 point lead over President Bush in a three way race, with Ralph Nader at 2%.  The President is highly vulnerable in Ohio, a state he won by just under 4% last time, and where manufacturing job losses have been high. This poll undoubtedly reflects the media's feeding frenzy over Abu Ghraib, which has softened Bush's support level nationally.  The Nick Berg beheading, the most downloaded video in internet history (take that, Paris Hilton), may work in the days ahead to bolster the President's support level, clarifying again for those who have forgotten, the bestiality of the forces we are fighting in the war on terror.

Conversely, in Pennsylvania, a state that Bush lost to Gore by 5% last time, every poll taken in the last month shows Bush equal to or ahead of Kerry. The states have almost equivalent Electoral College votes (Pennsylvania has one more vote than Ohio), so a swap would not be bad for Bush. But losing Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida would almost certainly kill Bush's chances for re—election. So these three states will be the focal point of the campaign to come for both sides. The risk for Bush is that he has to defend two of the three that he won last time; Kerry only one that Gore won.

There is tradition on Bush's side however, when it comes to Ohio. The state has a southern—style voting streak in its central and rural areas, and in the cities of southwest Ohio.  Those who read Theodore White's journals on the Presidential elections of 1960 through 1972 might recall the extreme disappointment which John Kennedy expressed on election  night in 1960, when he realized he had lost Ohio. He held his bandaged hand out to a newspaper reporter, and angrily declared that this injury was from Ohio. (Kennedy had shaken a lot of hands in the state).

The other way to view Ohio is that no Republican has ever been elected without taking the state. Yes, it is a national election, but 30 or so states are in the bag for one side or the other.  Kerry will not win Alabama, and Bush will not win Connecticut.

The President received some good political news this week when the Reform Party selected Ralph Nader as its nominee. The Reform Party already has a place on the ballot in seven states, including Florida and Michigan.  Florida is certainly a tossup state, and Michigan leans to the Democrats. While some pundits have argued that Nader will be a non—factor this time around, so far he is polling better than he did in 2000. The reason may be that the hard left is so fixated on Iraq that they don't find Kerry's ambiguity on the war acceptable. After all, Kerry voted for the war resolution and then he voted for the $87 billion, before voting against it, as we now all now know.  In states where the hard left is a big factor in Democratic politics —— Oregon Washington, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Maine, among them —— the Nader candidacy, assuming he gets on the ballot, could be costly to Kerry.

Nader, I think, is unlikely to string his supporters along for six months, and then tell them in October to vote for another candidate whom the hard left regards as bland as an all—white dish towel.  There is passion on the hard left. Visit the indymedia web site, or read Ted Rall's heinous cartoons to get a dose.  Ted Kennedy's over—the—top attacks on the President may be designed to throw a welcome mat out for the left fringe, but it may not be enough. When hatred is coursing through your veins, you want red meat, not Lunchables.

Michel Barone has, as always, an interesting take on some of the early state polls. The President is doing better than expected in California and New Jersey. In California it is only one poll that shows a tight race, but in New Jersey, two of the most recent three polls suggest it is competitive. Barone argues that in both states, affluent suburban voters may be more likely to vote for Bush this time around than last time, because they approve of his tax cuts, and see some danger in Kerry's taking money out of their wallets. Plutocrats like Warren Buffet can call for tax increases on the rich, and try to sound like higher order public citizens by doing so. But two—income families with a $250,000 income, and a 40—45% total tax bite, do not necessarily consider themselves wealthy, and would prefer not to have their taxes raised.

Barone, in his Almanac of American Politics, identified a trend that he says occurred in the suburbs of many Midwestern and Northeastern cities in the last ten years. The Clinton spin machine did a terrific job of frightening economic conservative but socially liberal suburban voters, particularly women, that the GOP was no longer their party. The Democrats' message was that the Republican Party was now controlled by Southern bigots and religious crusaders, particularly on the issue of abortion.  Newt Gingrich became the poster boy they waved at these voters.

It worked. Clinton convinced many suburbanites that he was not a typical liberal tax—and—spend Democrat (think welfare reform, more cops on the street, and a balanced budget).  These messages —— reassuring about the Democrats and scary about the GOP —— made it easier for many suburban voters to switch to the Democrats.

It is possible that there may be the beginning of a small blowback. Whether it is enough to make some states competitive again —— Illinois, New Jersey, and California are the three states that shifted most decisively toward the Democrats in the late 90s —— is unclear. Barone is skeptical.

I think Illinois is probably lost to the Republicans, in part because of problems with the state party.  New Jersey was a reliable Republican state in Presidential elections right through 1988.  Republicans were elected to some statewide offices through most of the 90s.  In 2000, while Gore beat Bush by 16%, the GOP's nominee for the US Senate lost a very close race to Jon Corzine (3% margin), after the former Goldman Sachs chief spent $70 million of his personal fortune to buy the seat. Ethically challenged former Democratic Senator Bob Torricelli would likely have been defeated in his re—election bid in 2002, and only a late candidate switch to Frank Lautenberg saved the seat for the Democrats. Another factor that might aid the Republicans in New Jersey is the unpopularity of the Democratic Governor McGreevey.  I would still regard a win in New Jersey as a long shot for Bush, but is no longer an impossibility.

California has a different wild card at play: the Schwarzenegger factor. The Governator is very popular in California (and everywhere else it seems) —— mid 60% approval at the moment.  Even the New York Times editorialized some nice things about him a week ago.  Almost single—handedly and in very short order, he has changed the face of his party in the state. If Schwarzenegger leads the charge for Bush, that is probably better than Bush campaigning in person. California is by far the most expensive media state. If the Democrats are forced to spend on TV ads to win it this time, that in itself will be a victory for Bush.

Spending is another interesting facet of the race ahead. The FEC decision Thursday to allow 527 groups to raise large gifts and spend their money on the Presidential race will almost surely now force the Republicans to create similar groups as the ones that have already raised tens of millions for the Democrats, such as ACT and moveon.org. The Republicans certainly have wealthy donors of their own, and it can be expected that they will compete on this level very soon.

As it has for several weeks, Iraq remains by far the biggest influence on the Presidential race. Despite very good news on the jobs front, President Bush's ratings on the economy declined in the past two weeks , suggesting that the overhang of Iraq —— the dissatisfaction with the  way the war is going (including the prisoner abuse story) —— is crowding out news of other things. If Americans start reacting negatively to the media and the Democrats'partisan Abu Ghraib overkill, or get their backs up after the demonic murder of Nick Berg, the numbers may change again in the weeks ahead.