Kerry bounces backwards

Two weeks ago, both Democratic and GOP strategists were talking about the coming Kerry poll bounce.  The bounce would have two stages: the VP nominee selection, and then the Democratic convention.  The GOP, trying to highball the number, estimated that  Kerry would take a 15 point lead by the beginning of August. The Democrats more modestly estimated an 8 to 12% bounce.  Well, the first bounce, the Edwards selection bounce, has come and gone.  And President Bush has not only recovered from it, but has retaken the lead.

The Rasmusen daily tracking poll  records voter preferences from 500 voters every night. The survey has recorded remarkable stability in the relative standing between the two nominees since Kerry wrapped up the nomination on March 2nd. Both candidates have, with very few exceptions, stayed within 3 points of the 45% support level, and neither candidate has opened up a bigger lead than 4%. Right after the Edwards pick, and over the course of a few days, Kerry built up his first 4 point lead, and maintained a 3 to 4 point edge over six days, the longest stretch for either candidate to maintain a lead that large. In the last four days, that lift the Kerry ticket received from the Edwards pick has disappeared. President Bush has been picking up strength every day, and now leads by 2%.

We are 15 weeks from the election, both conventions are yet to be held, there are 4 presidential and vice—presidential debates that will occur, and any number of national and international events might have a substantial impact on the election. But the poll results indicate what I think is an obvious set of conclusions.

Kerry received his poll bounce when the media was saturated with feel—good stories about the new ticket, and Edwards's smiling face and lovely family were everywhere to be seen.  Even some reporters who had gotten used to Kerry's soporific speaking style, remarked on the new energy he showed in Edwards's presence. But then suddenly Edwards was sent—off on his own, and Kerry resumed control of center stage, the more visible member of the Democratic ticket.

For several months, Kerry had been almost a non—factor in the campaign. Some pundits suggested he had been hidden from view. The ups and downs recorded by Rasmusen and other pollsters reflected primarily changes in support for President Bush, reflecting bad news —— high casualties in Iraq in April, and Abu Ghraib in May —— or good news —— better economic numbers announced in June, and  the early turnover of sovereignty in Iraq.  But with the election and convention drawing closer, Kerry can no longer be hidden by his handlers. And with the exception of the two final nights of the Democratic convention, and the Vice Presidential debate, Edwards will be off the front page, and more importantly, not playing smiling sidekick to the stone faced Kerry.

In Edwards's absence, the Kerry sleep walk appears worse than ever.  In a speech on intelligence failures last week, Kerry seemed drugged. It was as wooden a performance as I have ever seen by a major candidate for President.  It made one long for even the charisma of Florida Senator Bob Graham. It is very difficult to see how Kerry can personally connect with swing voters.

But more voters are now paying attention to the campaign. Newspapers and TV news shows are devoting a higher percentage of their space and time to the campaign. As a result, the election is no longer all about Bush. Many Americans, who have not yet been much engaged in the race, will now have to decide whether to stick with the guy they know, and his flaws, or switch horses in the midst of a war. 

Iraq is an unfinished story, of course, and the Kerry and Edwards now face questions on Iraq and the war on terror, and their answers are subject to close scrutiny. So far, the answers from both candidates have been very weak.  The Kerry approach seems to be that in the future we need to keep the French and Germans happier, and work more with the UN.  This is neither a winning nor an intelligent message. Edwards is beginning to be hammered on the inconsistency of his gung—ho approach to Iraq back before the primaries, and his much softer pose now.  Like any good trial lawyer, he is trying to find connections in the record that do not exist.

The Democrats have many advantages going forward. They have a very large, motivated Bush—hating base. While the angry face of the activists also creates some problems for Kerry, the activists have provided Kerry with a funding and manpower edge. To date, there have been more pro—Kerry or anti—Bush  ads run in the battleground states than Bush ads. The 527 support groups may not be legally allowed to coordinate their efforts with the Kerry campaign, but they have already spent over $50 million on ads, and registration and organization efforts in the very same states where the Kerry team is making its effort. 

Then throw in the Michael More movie, Fahrenheit 9/11. With a box office gross now over $90 million, upwards of 10 million people have already seen the film, and perhaps 15 million will see it by Election Day. Even if only 10—20% of the viewers are Republicans or undecided voters (as suggested by a survey taken on the movie's opening weekend), if a few percent of these viewers change their allegiance as a result of this propaganda piece, it could be costly to the President's re—election effort.  Regrettably only a few thousand people will probably read the lengthy listing of the film's deceits and outright lies prepared by David Kopel.

And finally, there are the traditional, and supposedly neutral media: national evening news shows, newspapers, and news weeklies.  These opinion makers all seem to have a stake in getting Kerry elected as well, regardless of their honesty about it .

Bush will have to work hard to win. He will need to do well in the debates, and have some favorable news developments to support him, most importantly an improving economy and job numbers.   But Kerry may be his secret weapon.