Are President Bush’s reelection prospects in serious jeopardy? Thus far the biggest alarmist about this has been Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan points to some recent polls, including ones by Gallup, Quinnipiac, and Newsweek showing Senator John Kerry beating Bush in a head-to-head match up, and a CBSNews poll showing Bush beating a generic Democrat by only 45-43% in conservative South Carolina. According to Sullivan, “Bush is in deep trouble.”
The CBSNews poll can be dismissed as meaningless. Poll respondents often project their hopes and aspirations onto a generic candidate, so the only thing the CBSNews poll tells us is how Bush would fare against the ideal Democrat. Second, the date the poll was taken, January 28-29, was the run-up to the Democratic South Carolina Primary. The poll likely reflects the flood of Democratic attacks on Bush in the Palmetto State.
The other polls seem more worrisome. The earliest of the three, Newsweek, showed John Kerry with a 48-46 lead over Bush. The other two have since shown Kerry getting into the low 50s, with Bush sinking to the low 40s. Yet what these polls show is best summarized by the following quote from the CNN article about the Gallup poll:
The poll underscores both Kerry’s momentum after his wins in New Hampshire and Iowa, and increased favorability among Democrats in general as they dominate political news with their primaries and steady criticism of Bush.
The two phenomena captured by these polls can be described as the front-runner boost, and the height of Bush-Bashing season. Most poll respondents know little about Kerry other than the positive news coverage he has received in the last two weeks, that he’s winning, and maybe that he’s a Vietnam veteran. This undoubtedly gives him a boost in the polls. Meanwhile, all of the Democratic candidates’ attacks on Bush during the primaries are given plenty of air time, and with the exception of an occasional appearance by GOP head Ed Gillespie, they are not responded to. As a result, Bush’s poll numbers are suffering.
A closer examination of the polls strongly suggests that these factors are at work. The Gallup poll seems particularly sensitive to changes in the political landscape. Back in early September Bush was getting hit hard by the Democrats over Iraq and the so-called jobless recovery. During that time the Gallup poll also had Kerry leading Bush, 48-47%. The Newsweek and Quinnipiac polls show that some of the support Kerry has picked up is very soft. In both polls the undecideds have declined about 3-4% from a few months ago. Those are people who have by no means decided to “Marry Kerry.”
All of this will change once it is clear that Kerry is the last Democrat standing. Then the Bush Campaign will roll out the attack ads. However, Sullivan worries that the strategy the Bushies are likely to pursue will prove ineffective:
All the signs are that the Republicans plan to disinter the old “l-word” campaign against Kerry. Liberal, liberal, liberal. To which the best response is: dated, dated, dated… A much smarter move, it seems to me, would be to paint Kerry as simply all over the map. Show not just how liberal he has been — but how conservative he has tried to seem in the past as well… Make him look weak and vacillating rather than extreme and liberal. That makes the case for Bush’s war-leadership indirectly — and therefore more effectively.
It’s not clear why the Bush Campaign can’t do some of both. Portraying Kerry as a wishy-washy liberal would seem to be more effective than just portraying him as either liberal or indecisive. Besides, the Bush attack on Kerry as a liberal will probably begin in March. At that early date, there will be plenty of time for the Bush Campaign to determine if the strategy is effective and change it if it is not.
Sullivan also pans Bush’s other likely campaign strategy: “From the [State of the Union Speech], it looks like he’s going to run on 9/11. Bad, backward-looking idea.” However, Sullivan doesn’t seem to put that strategy in context. He should, because this is what he wrote next: Bush’s “coalition is fracturing; his reach out to Hispanics seems to have hurt him more with the base than won him new votes; his spending has independents deeply concerned.”
Although fracturing might be too strong a word, Bush has made some mistakes lately that have aroused discontent among his base, including immigration reform, and a big spending increase for that conservative bugaboo, the National Endowment for the Arts. Given that, it makes sense to campaign on 9/11. Most, if not all of his base admires Bush deeply for the way he handled 9/11. Stirring up those memories seems like a sound way of shoring up his base. Indeed, in that light the strategy to portray Kerry as a liberal makes a lot more sense. What better way to get the Republican base to turn out than to convince it that if it doesn’t turn out for Bush, then it’ll get four years of Ted Kennedy’s best bud in Massachusetts?
Right now the polls aren’t much use in determining Bush’s weaknesses, or Kerry’s strengths. We won’t know how the race is shaping up until Kerry is finalized as the nominee (if and when), voters have gotten to know him better, and the Bush ad campaign begins, not to mention the effect from the economic performance of the first quarter of 2004. That probably won’t be until early June, mid-May at the soonest. If Bush still trails Kerry at that point, then it’ll be time for Bush supporters to start worrying. Until then, there’s no point in losing much sleep.