Has Bush Bottomed?

The Baehr Essentials

We are over five months away from the Presidential election, and supporters of both candidates continue to behave in a manic—depressive fashion, as their candidate first pulls away and then falls behind.

For several weeks, the story line of the race was that Democratic operatives were panicked that Kerry was falling behind despite bad news on Iraq, which should have lifted him into the lead. The Village Voice speculated about dumping Kerry at the convention, the Hillary—is—coming stories began to appear, and big Hollywood money—types met in panic at the home of Arianna Huffington to formulate strategy to turn the race around. 

Then the Abu Ghraib story broke, and the media began to ignore anything else happening in the world to focus on it. Despite saying and doing nothing of any consequence himself, Kerry was suddenly was ahead five points in a few polls, instead of down five, as he had been just a few weeks before. The Bush internal numbers —— job approval and stewardship on Iraq ——  fell through the floor, to the lowest levels of his time in office.  Matthew Dowd, a Bush campaign strategist, publicly stated that a slippage of another six or seven points in job approval might prove fatal to the President's campaign effort.

Through all this, Scott Rasmussen, the pollster for realclearpolitics.com has been polling every day, and has come to a few very interesting conclusions. Rasmussen says each candidate has been within 3 points of 45% overall support on EVERY day since he started polling almost three months ago, after Kerry clinched the Democratic Party's nomination. Given the margin of error in the poll, it means the race has effectively been a statistical tie on every day so far. 

Rasmussen believes each candidate has a fairly stable base of support in the low 40s. The other thing Rasmussen has concluded is that the key up—or—down determinant in the relative standing of the two candidates day—to—day is the news on Iraq. Each time it is bad for a few days, Bush takes a hit. But then, as that story fades, Bush comes back to where he had been. So once again, Bush has now moved back ahead in the tracking poll the last two nights, after trailing during the Abu Ghraib media overkill period, almost every day for two weeks.

It appears that this election is about Bush much more than Kerry. The Kerry camp seems to have decided to keep their campaign very low key, during periods when Bush is suffering in the news. Arguably, much of the media will work its way to seeing that the news is bad for Bush pretty often from here on out, since the media cares very much about who wins. As Ralph Peters wrote this week, the media seems to care more about whether Bush wins, than whether the US wins in Iraq. Since he concludes that the media wants Bush to lose, they are doing their best to hurt him by making the war seem like a lost cause. What follows, according to Peters, is the loss of popular support for the war at home, and that leads to policy decisions that are not in the country's best interest. It is clear that fighting a war during an election year is a big complicating factor. 

More and more state polls are now available on the race.  So far, Bush is ahead in all the states he won last time, and behind in all the states he lost last time except for four— Wisconsin, Oregon, Ohio and New Hampshire. Bush lost the first two states (Wisconsin and Oregon) very narrowly in 2000, but is ahead in the latest polls taken in these states. Bush won Ohio and New Hampshire by small margins in 2000, but is behind in the latest polls in these two states today.  As a result of redistricting, the states Bush won in 2000, producing 271 electoral votes, now account for 278. Adjust for the four states mentioned above and Bush winds up with 271. Pretty amazing, I think.

The most positive news for Bush came from a few state polls and a regional poll of the South taken by John Zogby. The Zogby poll shows Bush ahead in the 11 states of the Confederacy by 15%. He is also ahead in Kentucky, so the clean sweep of the region in 2000 could be repeated again, though Florida is certainly not in the bag. The love fest for Bush at the AIPAC conference this week, suggests that Bush has a real chance to significantly improve his position with Jewish voters, which would be a big assist in winning Florida again.

The new state polls that should have caught Karl Rove's eye were in Illinois and New Jersey. These two states and California were safe Democratic states in the two Clinton races, and for Gore in 2000. In each case, the Democrat won by 10% or more in each of the three states in each of the last three elections. The latest polls from the three states show Kerry ahead in all of them, but only by 5% in Illinois, 3% in New Jersey, and 1% in California.

The New Jersey numbers are of the greatest interest, since this is the third poll of the last four taken which shows a very competitive race in a state Gore won by 16%. The California numbers are more favorable for Bush than prior polls, which showed him down by 8 to 10 points. In Illinois, the 5 point gap is the closest one so far among the various surveys taken.

There is beginning to be some evidence that these three states, which have become largely suburban in recent decades, may be reverting to more traditional suburban voting patterns (Republican) after shifting hard away from the Republicans in the 90s, in reaction to the perception that the GOP had become dominated by Southerners and social conservatives. It is possible that the focus on national defense, national security, and the war on terror, is making more voters judge the candidates as leaders, and for their national security experience and credentials, rather than for their positions on hot button social issues such as abortion, and gay rights.

There is also another factor at work, I believe. In California, there is a very popular Republican governor. In New Jersey, and Illinois, there are increasingly unpopular Democratic governors.  This is probably helping Bush a few percent in each state.  Bush has not advertised in any of these three states —— they were not regarded as battleground states. If Bush begins to advertise in any of them, it is a signal that they are really in play.  If Kerry must work and spend to defend them, then more of the final battle between the candidates will be played on his side of the field, which would be a big advantage for the President.