The punditry has bounced from narrative to narrative about the presidential election. Early this year, back when Howard Dean was still leading the Democratic pack, the speculation was of a Bush blow out. As the Bush-bashing of the primaries got into high gear driving down the President’s poll numbers, the spin was “how close” the election was going to be. Once it appeared that John Kerry couldn’t seem to take a step without stumbling, the buzz was that his terrible candidacy might ensure a Bush victory. Now, a new story-line is emerging, as encapsulated by Andrew Sullivan:
The conventional wisdom in Washington right now is that Kerry is such an awful candidate that he is doomed in the fall….My instinct is that this election will not, in fact, be close. Either Bush will convince people that he is winning the war on terror and turning the economy around and win handsomely, or he won’t, and Kerry will win big. Recent history suggests that incumbent presidents either lose badly or win well.
So now it will be a blow out, either for Bush or (as Sullivan speculates) for Kerry. Well, that clears it up!
Let me make it even more confusing. This is the “We Pundits Don’t Have a Clue How It Will Turn Out” election. A prime example of this is the conventional wisdom that, due to a highly polarized electorate, only a small percentage of voters are undecided. But the constantly shifting results from the Rasmussen tracking poll suggest that the percentage of undecideds may be quite a bit larger.
Indeed, this may be the election that defies predictions. The reason is that there are simply too many unknowns, including:
Iraq: The volatility of events in that country will probably ensure that tracking poll numbers will fluctuate for the next few months. The conflicts in Fallujah and Najaf gave Bush a bounce. Now, according to some, the awful events at Abu Ghraib will sap whatever faith America has left in the Bush Administration’s handling of Iraq. But will American outrage over the grisly murder of Nick Berg swing the pendulum back to advantage Bush? And who knows what is coming next?
Handling of Iraq: Bush is slipping on the handling of Iraq. His once fifteen-point advantage over Kerry on that issue has shrunk to three in the latest Gallup poll. Rasmussen shows that Bush’s advantage over Kerry on national security and the war on terror has shrunk from twelve points to six. Clearly, the Bush Administration is adrift on Iraq right now, acting as though it hopes the June 30 transition will bring calm. This has prompted Bill Kristol and Bob Kagan to advocate speeding up elections in Iraq to September 30. Whatever new policy Bush could choose, he needs to choose a new policy, if he wants to regain voter confidence on the Iraq War. If he doesn’t, this issue could become an advantage for …
John Kerry: Kerry — by the way, did you know he is a Vietnam Vet? — is not where he is in the polls today because of any strength of his candidacy. Indeed, according the Gallup, “It appears that while the president’s positioning in the eyes of voters has become more vulnerable — as indicated by his job approval rating and the drop in support for U.S. involvement in Iraq — Kerry has yet to take full advantage of it.” Rather, Kerry’s standing in the polls is largely due to the Anybody But Bush passion that grips the Democratic Party. Will that last into the fall? It’s hard to maintain that kind of passion when your candidate is a dud. Yet Kerry could improve — after all, he managed a comeback to win the Democratic nomination. If Al Gore could reinvent himself (well, sort of) late in the game in 2000, anything is possible. However, Kerry will have to undergo an extreme makeover (and not the Botox kind), because he may be losing one of his best issues …
The Economy: Had job growth been strong starting late last year, Bush’s numbers on the economy would surely be solid by now. It is questionable whether job growth at this stage in the election cycle will boost Bush’s numbers. A FoxNews poll suggests that some of the good news may be getting through, with Bush jumping out to a slight lead over Kerry, 41-39%, on the economy. By contrast, the Gallup poll showed Kerry maintaining a commanding 14 point lead. Add in a nervous stock market, inflation, gasoline prices, and an all-but-certain interest rate hike, and the economy’s effect on the presidential race could be almost as volatile as Iraq.
Afghanistan: This is more of a wild card than a likely major factor. Afghanistan, presumably, will hold elections in September. If all goes smoothly, it could boost Bush’s foreign policy numbers. If it is marred with violence, it could undermine them. Of course, which of those two scenarios would receive more media coverage?
New York, New York: A hoard of protesters — some estimates put it at a million — will descend on the Big Apple during the Republican Convention. If the anti-globalization crowd shows up, and tear gas wafts into Madison Square Garden ventilation system, the resulting fiasco — well, let’s just hope for a peaceful convention.
Back in early February I suggested that it “won’t be until early June, mid-May at the soonest,” that we would know how the presidential race is shaping up. Serve me up a big heaping plate of crow. With a constant torrent of bad news for the incumbent, a lackluster challenger, and an economy heating up late in the game, no one may be able to confidently predict a winner until November 3.