Poor John Kerry can't catch a break, can he? Today's USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll shows him trailing the President among likely voters by 13 points. Other polls show the race much closer -- the Pew Research Center, the Harris Poll, and Investors Business Daily all show a dead heat as of this week, and Rassmussen's daily tracking poll has steadily shown a much smaller lead for the President -- so there's a very good chance that either this is a statistical fluke or Gallup has made some methodological error (it's impossible to tell as of this writing, as only the top-line results have been released). But it's not an isolated incident of bad news.
Because their margins of error are typically high, state-level polls are at this point good mostly for showing which states are safe and which states are in play. States like Illinois or New Jersey should be perfectly safe for Kerry, but SurveyUSA polls this week show the race within the margin of error in both, with Bush ahead in the latter. That doesn't mean that Bush will win either of them, but it does suggest trouble for Kerry in the real battlegrounds bordering those states -- Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Iowa -- with cultural regions and media markets in common.
What's worse, Kerry seems to have no built-in constituency of his own apart from the anybody-but-Bush crowd. With his poll numbers ranging from the low to high 40s, his personal approval rating has dropped as low as 36, according to Gallup.
Obviously, Kerry isn't a particularly appealing figure, but his problems run deeper than that. One of the hallmarks of a skilled politician is an ability to appeal to both his partisan base and to voters in the ideological middle, which is why "New Democrats" and "Compassionate Conservatives" have done so well. Kerry has never mastered this skill, desperately though he may try. The Democratic base wants a departure from anything resembling George W. Bush's foreign policy, so last week Kerry called Iraq "the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time" and promised to pull out of Iraq in his first term. But swing voters want the challenger to meet a threshold of responsible leadership, so the very next he said that the 1,000 soldiers lost in Iraq have died "on behalf of freedom in the war on terror," and that we "owe it to their memory" to "do what's right in Iraq." This not only pleases nobody, it reinforces one of Kerry's chief liabilities, the perception that he's a flip-flopper. (His praise at a campaign stop for a restaurant with only one choice, rather than a menu, as being great "for confused people like me who can't make up our minds" didn't help on that front, either.)
Among the most important events left in the campaign are the upcoming debates, and Kerry's never shown himself to be a great debater. There's plenty of time left for the dynamics of the race to change, and events outside the candidates' control may very well change them. But it's hard to see at this point what Kerry is capable of doing to change them himself.
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