Which campaign is really in trouble?

The Baehr Essentials

Based on events of the past few months, the Kerry Edwards ticket should now have vaulted to a comfortable lead of between five and ten points. In April, American casualties in Iraq soared to their highest one month level since the war began.  The following month came the revelation of the Abu Ghraib scandal.  In early July, Senator John Kerry picked John Edwards as his running mate to almost universal media acclaim.  The Democratic convention went off smoothly, and Kerry's acceptance speech to a decent size TV audience was generally well received. Images of Kerry as a strong leader and a war veteran were all over the stage and screen. The most recent economic data indicated a slowing from the rapid economic growth rate that occurred in the first quarter, and a lower level of monthly job creation.  And perhaps most significantly, the Kerry campaign, supplemented by very heavy support from 527 support groups, has been outspending the Bush campaign on TV and radio for months.

A few polls conducted the night after the Kerry speech did show a bit of a bounce —— Newsweek's instant poll gave Kerry a 7 point lead, CBS a 6 point lead, Zogby a 5 point lead.  Polling following convention acceptance speeches has been tracked for many years, and there is fairly clear historical evidence that there are initial bounces that begin to fade over the next few weeks. Conducting a poll immediately after a major event can therefore be misleading. Given the organizations conducting the instant polls, it would not be surprising if the timing (instant, and hence likely to be favorable to Kerry), was designed to display momentum for the Democratic ticket.  People like to be with winners after all, so the mere appearance of momentum sometimes can create it.  The New York Times, and CBS and Newsweek are not neutral about this race, much as they obsess about Fox News for its alleged bias.

The later Presidential polls, conducted 3 to 6 days after the Convention ended, now show the race even. Kerry's lead has evaporated.  The Marist poll and the Rasmussen poll show a tie, ABC/Washington Post gives Kerry a two point lead (though this result may be stale by now), and CNN/Gallup/USA have Bush ahead by 6. When this last poll's results were initially tabulated, the pollsters themselves were so surprised by the results, they added one extra night. Bush then pulled further ahead (widening a 4 point lead to 6).

Something is going on here, and it is NOT good news for the Kerry Edwards ticket.  Despite friendly media coverage, and the boosts to be expected from the VP pick and the convention, Kerry and Edwards are still in a dead heat with Bush and Cheney, just as they were four weeks ago. And the GOP convention is still to come, which should help the President.

Charles Cook and other pundits keep arguing that a dead heat at this stage is not good news for Bush, since undecided voters tend to break for the challenger at the end.  But the recent ping pong polling results suggest that the movement in the polls week to week may result from voters who are loosely affiliated with one candidate moving to or from that candidate.  This is different than the picture of undecided voters who, as a group, begin to pay attention only after the World Series is concluded.  Many Americans already seem to be following the campaign quite closely. 

Scott Rasmussen has noticed that every time ether candidate pulls ahead by a few points, the race reverts to 50/50 a few days later. This has now happened twice in a month.  This repeated pattern of a Kerry boost and then fade, is beginning to alarm some of the Bush haters, such as Paul Krugman, who in his Tuesday column accused CNN of behaving in a Fox News Channel—like manner. The media is killing Kerry, if you listen to Krugman. Krugman has written this election is critical because the nation's future is threatened by GOP control of the White House and Congress. To a lesser extent, presumably, we are threatened by al Qaeda.

The real problem with the Kerry Edwards ticket is more basic, and self—inflicted I think. The candidates and their spouses were filmed this week stopping at Wendy's to celebrate the Edwards' anniversary.  What better way to show the candidates' connection to John Edwards'  'other America'? Kerry and his wife seemed confused in the restaurant. They ordered little. Back on the luxury bus, the ticket was treated to its regular gourmet seafood lunch, ordered in from the local yacht club. Billionaires may be filmed at Wendy's but they won't eat there. And most Americans can identify phonies.

William Saletan in Slate reads the race differently than I do.  Saletan is a Kerry partisan, but a thoughtful careful writer. Yet I think he relies too much on issue polls and other internals, and not enough on the head—to—head race, since the head—to—head numbers are not as favorable to his guy. Voters can favor Kerry on nine of ten issues, but if the tenth is the important one for them, they still might not vote for Kerry.  Some voters might favor Kerry on most issues, and still find him cold, aloof and not their kind of guy. The head—to—head poll is what matters, not the below—the—surface numbers. Job approval is probably second in importance, but even here the Bush numbers have stayed in the high 40s, or low 50s, higher than incumbents who have been defeated before, and a bit lower than those who have been re—elected.  Saletan uses Zogby's job approval numbers (which tend to be lower), but Zogby uses a different question and scoring system than all other polls on this question.

The Missouri primary election on Tuesday should be a wakeup call to the Democrats. Seventy—two percent of voters supported the traditional definition of marriage in a referendum. In November, similar referenda will be on the ballot in Michigan, probably Ohio, and maybe a dozen other states, including a few where there are hotly contested Senate races.  The gay marriage issue tends to attract mainly conservative voters to the polls. The Missouri turnout was the largest ever for a primary. Bigger conservative turnout helps Bush, and in some states, the additional votes cast by those who show up to oppose gay marriage could be the margin of victory. The state Democratic Party in Missouri fought to have the referendum voted on during the Primary, and not in November, precisely for this reason. The Bush campaign has also tapped Ralph Reed, the engineer of the Republican victory in Georgia in 2002, to manage the campaign in Florida this year. Expect a very good turnout of Republican voters in Florida in November.

With al Qaeda warning of attacks in September, and the economic numbers still in flux, a close race could clearly hinge on events that cannot be safely predicted. But the Edwards pick and the convention do not appear to have moved Kerry's campaign boat too swiftly. The debates probably represent his last best opportunity to shine, but also could be very damaging unless there is a personality makeover in the coming weeks.

The wisdom of the Edwards pick seems less apparent a month after his selection, as national security and terror threats become a bigger issue. Little John has spent a month talking about what a great guy Big John is. When Edwards debates Cheney, the gravitas and experience differential could be crushing for a candidate not yet ready for the main stage.  Most important, the Kerry campaign has surrounded itself with Kerry's Viet Nam buddies in an attempt to sell Kerry as a tough future leader, based on his 4 months of Viet Nam service 33 years ago. This may be a better strategy than trying to sell a very liberal and generally unimpressive 20 year Senate career, but without any specifics or substance on how Kerry would mange the international portfolio better than Bush, it may not be enough.  Dick Morris says that Kerry would have done better to emphasize his domestic agenda rather than try to out—soldier Bush.  .

David Brooks has called Kerry the Democrats' designated driver. Kerry, he says, is the sober one in a party intoxicated with self—righteous rage at President Bush.  But Kerry is also a driver who seems to naturally weave from side to side.  And even a designated driver can go off the road, when he has no directions.