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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Take a Deep Breath and Repeat After Me: It’s a Referendum on the Incumbent

Tim Grieve has a useful article on Salon.com today on Democrats’ “Premature Panic“. He has a nice lead that should make help Democrats take a deep breath and calm down a bit:
With just months to go in an election that ought to be a referendum on President Bush, the New York Times runs a front-page story: The Democrats are in serious trouble. Although Bush’s approval ratings are low, the presumptive Democratic nominee can’t get any traction. His campaign “continues to confront a cloud of doubts and reservations,” the Times says, and voters are complaining that he hasn’t offered the country a clear vision for the future.
It may sound like the Times on John Kerry in 2004. In fact, it’s the Times on Bill Clinton in 1992.

Grieve goes on to point out:
The Times [in 1992] said then that unnamed “political professionals in the Democratic Party” were troubled that Clinton hadn’t made a better impression on the nation’s voters. [Adam] Nagourney’s piece Sunday reported that “Democratic Party officials” have similar worries about Kerry.
But there’s a key difference here: In April 1992, the New York Times/CBS News poll showed Clinton trailing President George H.W. Bush, 49 percent to 40 percent, among registered voters. The latest New York Times/CBS News poll shows Kerry and President George W. Bush in a statistical dead heat.

Yes, yes, 2004 is not 1992, there was the Perot factor and so on. But food for thought, no? Perhaps we’re not as bad off as many Democrats seem determined to believe.
Democrats would get less hysterical, I think, if they firmly kept in mind one fundamental truth abut this election: it’s a referendum on the incumbent, as Chuck Todd reminds us, not John Kerry. So they key thing at this state of the campaign is how voters feel about the incumbent. If it’s negative, then Kerry is likely to win if he can convince voters he’s an acceptable alternative. But that is a process that will take some time, since voters who are thinking of abandoning the incumbent for his opponent are unlikely to do so all at once. Instead, that change is likely to happen in increments as Kerry makes his case and voters get to know him better. In short, the sudden 10 point leads that some Democrats appear to be looking for are unlikely and their current absence is no cause for panic or even much serious worry.
Rather than rending their garments about how close the horse race currently is, Democrats should be taking heart from the continued growth of negative feelings about Bush. The latest Quinniapiac University poll has Bush’s approval rating down to 46 percent approve/47 percent disapprove–their first net negative rating for Bush and well into the incumbent danger zone. The also have Bush’s approval rating on the economy at 41 approve/52 disapprove, on Iraq at 42/51 and even his rating on handling terrorism at just 54 percent.
Voters just don’t think Bush is doing a good job. And that’s great for Kerry. So, relax, take a deep breath and try to stay calm. The fundamentals of the race are very promising. And the last thing Kerry needs is for Democrats to go wobbly on him just because he doesn’t already have a big lead.

19 comments on “Take a Deep Breath and Repeat After Me: It’s a Referendum on the Incumbent

  1. Nathan on

    Lots of Republicans, some in key places such as Ohio, have indeed been talking about voting for Kerry out of disgust with Bush. A somewhat newer undercurrent I’ve been hearing, also anecdotal at this point, is the number of religious people who are upset that Bush consistently talks religious talk, but then his policies and actions do anything but hold up religious values. I’m hearing that from a wide range of religious poeple.
    In Cleveland, for instance, there is a major national meeting next week titled “Restoring America’s Integrity” of religious people concerned about Bush and wanting him defeated. I went to their web site, which is http://www.clnnlc.org and plan on going to the conference.

  2. thecreature on

    In response to Alan: when, in all of human history, has someone gotten 90/10 percent? Someone’s gonna be Republican come hell or high water. After all, 39% of Americans wanted Bary Goldwater to be president, even after he repeatedly shot himself in the foot. Some people’s minds are just never going to change, regardless of facts or anything else.
    And once again, we hafta be positive. Rather than dump on our guy for not landsliding, be glad that Bush, who as the incumbent should be polling above 50, can’t even get that (and will likely get much less).
    And I know this is only anecdotal evidence, but I’ve been hearing a lot of self-described Republicans (including one from TX who has never voted Dem in her 50 years) say they’re gonna vote for Kerry because Bush “is clearly a failed president.” And I haven’t been hearing anybody switching the other way. If all those self-described Republicans are casting in with Kerry, that can’t be good news for Bush.

  3. bt on

    I agree with the poster who wrote that haranguing or belittling persuadables who may have voted for Bush is counter-productive. It delays or negates the process people go through in the course of deciding that a previous belief or set of beliefs was wrong.

  4. Mencken on

    once more on the chuck todd landslide article:
    it’s worth reflecting on one of the last paragraphs from the article. although todd thinks a kerry rout is the most likely november surprise, a bush landslide is the second.
    “Of course, the tight polling data does reflect a fundamental reality: For all the fallout from his policies, Bush still appeals to many Americans because of his seeming decisiveness, straight talk, and regular-guy charm–not qualities that John Kerry prominently displays. The historical pattern may strongly suggest that if Kerry wins, it will be by large margins–but that is hardly fated. It will only happen if Kerry successfully highlights Bush’s failings while showing himself to be an appealing alternative. Otherwise, the senator could see himself losing an electoral rout, not winning in one. In fact, the second most likely outcome of this election is a Bush landslide. With just one exception, every president to win a second consecutive term has done so with a larger electoral margin than his initial victory. The least likely result this November is another close election.”

  5. don on

    I think people are in denials at the moment. Is this the guy I voted for in 2000? Is this the same guy who promised cooperation between Demos and Gopers ? was I conned by Bush, NO, not possible.
    It reminds me of the dot-bomb days, companies have no products but they kept getting VC money then it crashed eventually. Bush is not there yet, the buble is still strong but hopefully, it will burst someday.

  6. Maxcat on

    Kerry 62%
    bush 36%
    Nader 2%
    Place your bets, gentlemen.
    bush will only carry his down home base republicans. This country and our people have had it with this man and what he has done to our country and the world. All the repub’s that want to can stay home and not vote, just helps Mr. Kerry.
    “We the People” will do God’s work.
    Positive, positive, positive. That’s our message to our fellow citizens.
    bushies got all the negatives covered.

  7. Mencken on

    pushing the panic button right now probably isn’t the answer , but there’s nothing wrong w/ a little proactive concern. before we assume a kerry victory is a done deal, the campaign needs to tighten it up.
    I see my role—-and the purpose of all in-house criticism of kerry at this point—-as keeping the campaign on the straight and narrow.
    w/ the notable exception of ’92 and ’96, the dems have a 36-year electoral track record of straying wildly off-course. sometimes a little carping can be a good thing.

  8. Ron Thompson on

    About 75% of the reason I’m a Democrat is because I disapprove of and disagree with the Republicans. I think it’s likely that many if not most Republicans support their party because they fear and loathe the Democratic Party, or the image of it they have built in their heads.
    It’s an issue of loyalty and self-identification. A Bears fan doesn’t wake up one morning and decide to root for the Packers. They have to become pretty thoroughly disgusted with their team and distance themselves emotionally from it. Only when they’ve done that can they consider forming a new attachment.
    If Bush loses, and I think he will, you’ll see people who voted for him denying that they had done so. That’s a familiar pattern in exit polls: people forget voting for a loser. Those are the people who may then consider voting Democratic in two or four years.

  9. demtom on

    Herbert Hoover, with perhaps the worst re-election circumstance of any president in history, got 40% of the vote. That tells you all you need to know about the solidity of a certain percentage of the vote for either party. To expect a challenger to run blisteringly ahead in May ignores all recent history (see: 1980; 1992).
    There certainly are an amazing number of “the sky is falling” Dems out there right now. Some are simply young/naive, lacking in political awareness. But there are others who are supposed to be professionals, letting themselves be quoted (as usual) by the NY Times. What’s wrong with these people? Are they congenitally disposed to expect defeat? Don’t they understand that Dems have got the most votes in the last three presidential elections, and (marginally) hold the high ground? One of the things I think Dean supporters liked most about their candidate was, his policies aside, the confidence he showed that the public supported Dem party goals. Too many Democrats act as if we have to campaign in drag — that, despite polls showing overwhelming support for our side of the issues, the country is irredeemably Republican and our only chance is to fool the public into voting our way. I think this low self-esteem is the Dems’ biggest problem, and the main thing keeping them from establishing the majority Ruy and John propose in their book.

  10. Robert on

    As far as high-profile right wingers, what is happening with Roy Moore’s campaign? I heard that he was running for president. That would be perfect for eroding Bush’s base. Why haven’t the “liberal” media been giving him any coverage?

  11. Matt McIrvin on

    A few observations on why Kerry isn’t leading 90/10:
    – Nobody ever leads 90/10. For whatever reason, if you look at the past history of presidential elections, even ostensible blowouts like Reagan-Mondale ’84 aren’t that lopsided in the popular vote. Even Nixon on the eve of his resignation, under serious threat of impeachment and conviction for major and repeated abuse of presidential power, had a base of about 25% job approval. Carter and Bush I got down to the low thirties in job approval, and still got 41% and 37% respectively of the popular vote, in elections that had significant third-party candidates pushing the major-party percentages down.
    – In Bush’s conservative base, I see a lot of people who are currently expressing extreme dissatisfaction with him, but are still unable to think of Kerry as the lesser evil, on ideological or cultural grounds. Some of them may well stay at home on election day, but they’re not going to pick Kerry in a poll, and many will still vote for Bush by default. A high-profile right-wing, Perot-ish or quasi-libertarian third-party candidate would probably get them, but there doesn’t seem to be one up to bat this year, despite frequent wishful thinking along those lines.
    – I think that Bush is *still* riding the tail of the approval boost he got after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. There’s not much of that left, but there is a little of it: people who are not that sympathetic to Bush in general but who believe, in spite of everything that’s happened (and perhaps because of a few things that have happened), that his shift in foreign policy after the attacks was a change for the better signifying decisive leadership. (Call them Michael Totten Democrats.)
    I think that some of the people in this last category are gettable votes. They’re not stupid, but they need more convincing and won’t take kindly to contemptuous harangues. Some of them are starting to come around; not all of them will.

  12. Steve Cohen on

    Haven’t you ever had the experience of beating someone in an argument? Very rarely will that person simply say, “you were right, I was wrong”. It’s a loss of face. Your best hope is that they will act in the future in accordance with your argument, without actually admitting it.
    Or, try, as hard it might be to put yourself in the shoes of the Clinton-haters who couldn’t BELIEVE that a majority of the people still were opposed to his impeachment after all their “revelations”. And yet, when 2000 rolled around, all their poison did have an effect.

  13. Alan Snipes on

    As one who has pannicked about polls lately, I have found some good news poll fans. Although the Wall Street Journal/NBC has Bush up 46-42, Gallup released a new poll showing Kerry 49 Bush 48. Also the Daily Tracking Poll by Rassmussen Reports has Kerry up by 3-4 points for three days in a row. In Gallup Kerry has gained since the last Gallup Poll (Down 51-46). His new ads are hitting the air and Iraq is getting worse. It appears to me that things are grudgingly moving our way point by point, slowly but surely. Have Faith!

  14. Keith M Ellis on

    I’m nearly convinced at this point that Bush will lose, so of course that would limit my worry. I haven’t been seeing panic on the left, but I have been seeing a lot of worry. On the right, there’s worry but still a great deal of overconfidence, which is good for us, I think.
    I guess I can understand the traditional left’s panic because, basically, they remain pretty clueless about American politics. As the Bush admin unravels, I think the expectation has been that support would drop away precipitously as soon as people saw it for what it is. But those people will never see the Bush admin for what it is and has been. The most we can hope for is a vague feeling of disatisfaction coupled to a few concrete issues where the Bush admin had unquestionably failed. And, as it happens, that’s what’s happening.

  15. Robert on

    I think it’s unrealistic to expect Kerry to have anything near a 90/10 lead even if the media were doing their job. Democrats (and everyone else who wants to see Bush go back to Crawford) are going to have live with the fact that things will be this close for a couple months. I don’t think it matters what either side does. Things will just be close for awhile.
    As far as psychological conditions of Bush supporters, there is a small group of people in this country that will follow that man into hell if he told them it was the right thing to do. Like my first point, that’s just the way it is. If Bush got drunk, went on TV and personally said that he was lying about the WMD these people would be convinced that it was part of the liberal media conspiracy. Don’t be frustrated by it or try to understand it. You’ll only make yourself crazy. Just accept it and try to remember that those people are a small and crazy minority.
    frankly0, the depiction you’re thinking of is Bruno Gianelli (played by Ron Silver, who is actually a Republican) in an episode of the West Wing. Gianelli was the head of the campaign to reelect President Bartlett. He said those lines in the Roosevelt room during an argument over campaign literature.
    I’m not worried about Kerry’s chances at all. In fact I’m so not worried that I can waste my energy thinking about useless West Wing trivia.

  16. Alan on

    As a wooly-headed, over-emotional liberal myself, I have to endorse what frankly0 said. What I would add, however, is although there is no use in panic, and there is every reason to have confidence in Kerry (who improves on closer examination, rather than diminishes) I think anyone who is not wary of the right-wing juggernaught is setting themselves up to get flattened. Again.
    The right wing has accumulated a long string of electoral successes with their tactics; don’t look for them to give them up anytime soon. Only with awareness of that would we have any chance of giving them the thumping they will never forget and so richly deserve.

  17. frankly0 on

    Honestly, my reaction to the Dems who are panicking is that they are behaving like the paradigm of a woolly headed, over-emotional liberal that the right loves to ridicule.
    Basically, Kerry is dead even with Bush at this very early stage, and we should be running around in a frenzied anxiety, and thinking about dumping our candidate?
    Where are the cool heads out there? Where are the Dems who can take a punch and keep fighting? If being even is too much to bear, how would it be if Kerry were down by as much as Clinton had been before he was elected?
    One thing that reassures me is that Kerry and his team are most certainly not going to blow it because they can’t take any heat or discouragement. Kerry was down a hell of lot worse even in December of last year, and just did what he had to do to win.
    Whenever I hear the hysterical complaints from some Dems about Kerry’s campaign, I find myself reminded of the way someone once depicted Dems, as the sort of people who, when put in tough spot, cower in a corner and cry, “please don’t hurt me.” How different at base are these Dems?
    Happily for all of us, that is NOT the sort of stuff of which Kerry himself is made.

  18. Josh Yelon on

    I second Alan’s sentiments. I spent an hour today looking for articles by psychologists seeking to explain the current support for Bush. Every time I listen to one of them talk, I think “they’re in deep denial.” I just don’t understand how they got there, though. It’s like one of those weird psych experiments they did back in the sixties, where people did all kinds of crazy things if you put them under the right stresses.

  19. Alan on

    I think what is feeding the pessimism is that for those of us that are awake, we are utterly confounded by the base of support that Bush still gets.
    If you go on the objective record, why isn’t it Kerry over Bush 90/10? On what conceivable score of merit on which topic does Bush win, except when the facts are distored by a lazy and/or compliant media. Environment? Economy? Defense? Even the “nice ambiable guy” image receeds quickly on any but the most superficial examination.
    So when you see the polls say people think Bush is great in such numbers, it speaks to a command of the situation that simply defies fair play. If the game is so stacked in their favor, how do you win?


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