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The Big One

By Frank Gruber

Labor Day is a national holiday and every four years the traditional start (how quaint) of the presidential campaign, so I am going to use Labor Day 2004 as an excuse to put aside my weekly analysis of the micro problems of Santa Monica, forget "all politics is local," and look at the big picture, i.e., the Big One, i.e, Bush vs. Kerry.

The past three weeks have been marked by mounting hysteria among Democrats as, with the Swift Boat attacks and then with the Republican Convention, Bush has taken the lead in a contest that Kerry has usually led (very slightly) for the past six months.

The only noise louder than Zell Miller has been the gnashing of teeth by Democrats who are sure their champion is throwing away the election by not "being aggressive enough," or not "focusing his message enough," or not " defending himself enough."

In other words, these Democrats have swallowed, hook, line and sinker, exactly the message the Republicans cast into the media pond, and which, as usual, most of the pundits served as the truth of the day.

Pretty strange for people who consider themselves sophisticated consumers of news and commentary.

Even more strange, given that these same Democrats (and pundits) knew, or said they knew, that Bush, like all candidates, and especially like all incumbent presidents, would get a bounce in the polls from his convention; a bounce that pollsters will tell you usually starts before the convention but then, if the incumbent is not popular, later fades.

So exactly what happened?

A little more than a year ago, in summer 2003, few people thought President Bush was vulnerable. The war in Iraq was popular, the recession had ended, and most Americans liked the guy.

It looked like Republicans would repeat their success of 2002 and the dominant political theme in the media was that Karl Rove was a genius.

Then Iraq turned bad, the recovery didn't create jobs, Richard Clarke and Condoleeza Rice testified and Democrats started pounding Bush. Bush's negatives went up, and, confounding everyone, Democrats united behind the candidate with the best chance of winning, notwithstanding that he had voted in favor of authorizing the Iraq adventure.

The dominant theme then became the shockingly united and pragmatic Democratic Party.

Interestingly, the media found it easier to accept the theme that Karl Rove was a genius, even though, but for butterfly ballots, his candidate lost the 2000 election, than it was for them to accept that Democrats were united.

For example, since Kerry put a lock on the nomination, the senior political correspondent for the New York Times, Adam Nagourney, has written article after article (i) focusing on "insiders" who were second-guessing Kerry's campaign and (ii) expressing his wonderment that the Democrats had not yet self-destructed. When, just before the Republican Convention, Nagourney interviewed Karl Rove, his last question to him was whether he had any advice to give to Kerry.

Might he more profitably have asked Rove how he managed to blow Bush's huge advantage?

So we get to the Republican convention. Keep in mind that about 45 percent of the electorate is rabidly pro-Bush, and 45 percent is rabidly anti-Bush. This means (i) that it doesn't matter much what a candidate's "negatives" are until they get beyond 45 percent, and (ii) that it's useless to try to persuade someone in the other 45 percent to see things your way.

The election is fought in the middle ten percent.

These middle-ground voters are, naturally, less ideological. They tend to be concerned with pocket-book issues, which is why Kerry and his advisors have been emphasizing the economy, but they can be swayed by cultural issues and by appeals to patriotism and national security, or by how much they like a candidate, which is why the Republican convention emphasized fear of terror and ridicule of Kerry.

Bush did get something of a bounce, but nothing unusual. Two polls, Newsweek and Time, taken early during Convention week, showed Bush with ten and eleven point leads, which would reflect about a five point shift from Kerry to Bush.

But Zogby International, considered the most reliable pollsters by many because of their accurate prediction in 2000, took a poll on more or less the same days, and their poll gave Bush only a two-point lead with nine percent undecided. (The undecided number is important, because typically 85 percent of the undecided vote goes against the incumbent.)

Another independent polling company with a good track record, Rasmussen Reports, publishes a daily tracking poll and their poll as of Labor Day shows Bush with only a one-point lead. (To emphasize how iffy all this is, however, Rasmussen reported on Labor Day that in fact they believed Bush had a four to five point lead; apparently, Kerry had an anomalously good day on Saturday. See report)

Neither the Zogby nor Rasmussen polls received the attention on TV that the Newsweek and Time polls did.

But even assuming Bush emerged from the convention with a ten-point lead, is this significant?

Not really. The average elected incumbent has had a 16-point lead after his convention. Even with his bounce, Bush's numbers are weak, historically.

Does this mean that notwithstanding the convention, Kerry is going to win?


Does this mean that exceptional Democratic anxiety, or Republican glee, is warranted?

Also no.

What is most important is that both campaigns, the weekend after the convention, returned to the economy as Subject A.

The reason is obvious. The 45 percent who think Bush is a great wartime leader, and the 45 percent who think he is a reckless and dangerous man, are not going to change their minds.

The Republicans know that their chance to bash Kerry for four days over terrorism was a one-shot deal, and that the biggest issue among swing voters is the economy.

That is, of course, unless things get terribly bad in Iraq or on the terrorism front. One of the worst canards about Democrats is that they benefit if things go badly for the country or with our troops. The fact is that if the world situation were better, a James Carville-style, "it's the economy, stupid," campaign would be more effective.

The worse the world, the more effective Republican fear mongering.

Speaking as someone in Kerry's 45, I may want him to rant and rave about Iraq, to be "more aggressive," to motivate me, but that's not how he's going to win Ohio.

Yes, in the debates Kerry needs to be empathetic, and he has to come up with a straight answer about Iraq, and attack Bush on making the country weaker and more vulnerable instead of stronger, and dispel any doubts that he can protect us, but, to return to the big theme of Politics 2004, what Kerry most needs is a united and confident Democratic Party.

Instead, so many Democrats cannot believe Kerry will win. They're defeatist and depressive, and unless they pick themselves up and get to work, they will fulfill their prophecy.

Bush and Rove lost the vote in 2000 and they have blown a huge lead in the past year -- but you don't see Ralph Reed second-guessing them. (At least not in public.)

So the question is -- the Big One -- will the Democrats keep it together, or will they make Rove look like a genius?

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