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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Why Isn’t Kerry Farther Ahead?

There have been two major polls (I don’t consider Fox a “major”) since the middle of June–The Washington Post and Gallup–and in both of them Kerry leads Bush among registered voters (in the Post poll by 8 and in Gallup by 4). Not bad for John Kerry, not bad at all.
Some are dissatisfied, however. Why isn’t he farther ahead? What about some of the minor polls where he isn’t doing do well? Why does Kerry’s lead sometimes vanish, even in the major polls (as indeed might happen tomorrow for all I know)?
Calm down. Say your mantra. And meditate on these recent words from Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of The Gallup poll:
Based on historical patterns, Bush’s job approval rating is thus underperforming the pattern of presidents who have won re-election. In the broadest sense, Bush’s job approval rating has generally been remarkably stable this year, averaging about 50% (which is a symbolic dividing line for an incumbent seeking re-election) since mid-January. The current downtick in his ratings puts him below the pattern of successful presidents. Having a rating below 50% (as is the case with his last four ratings) is not a good sign for an incumbent. If Bush wins this November, he would be the first president since Harry Truman to come from a below 50% rating to win re-election.
The fact that Bush has been behind the likely Democratic nominee, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, in several Gallup Poll re-election trial heat ballots this year, means that Bush’s re-election probabilities are lower than those of his successful predecessors. None of the five presidents who won re-election were behind their eventual opponent in any trial heats after January in the year prior to their election. If Bush wins this year, he will become the first president to come from behind in election year spring polls to win.
The trial heat patterns of the three presidents who eventually lost were erratic enough, however, to suggest that fluidity is the norm rather than the exception in trial heat ballots at this point in the campaign.

Feel better (at least if you’re a Kerry partisan)? Eventually, of course, Kerry does need to take and maintain a solid lead, but it is unrealistic to expect that to happen this early in the campaign. Perhaps after the Democratic convention such a pattern might begin to emerge, but that would be the earliest.
So expect fluidity to continue for awhile. As many have pointed out, deciding you want to fire the incumbent (where we are now) is a different decision than deciding you definitely want to hire John Kerry (the stage of the campaign we are moving into). Once we reach that stage, many swing voters will come off the fence and the political picture should be clarified.
And, make no mistake about it, despite apparent shrinkage in the swing voter pool, there are still plenty of these voters around. According to a just-released report by the Pew Research Center, about a fifth of voters can be classified as swing at this stage of the campaign–sizable, though still down 6-11 points from the proportions of swing voters at analogous points in the 1992, 1996 and 2000 campaigns.
In the Pew data, swing voters who currently express a preference are about equally divided between Bush and Kerry. However, their approval ratings for Bush on the economy (36 percent) and Iraq (34 percent) are notably low. In addition, swing voters in their June data are heavily moderate (49 percent) and independent/no party preference (45 percent) or Democratic (36 percent). Thus, John Kerry appears to be well-positioned to make headway among these voters over time.
Two other interesting notes from the Pew report. They pooled their data from April to June to get enough respondents to look at Bush approval ratings in some key battleground states. Generally, the rank order of approval rating follows from the 2000 results: Bush approval is higher in states he carried in 2000; lower in states he did not. But there is one important exception. Among the nine states they provide data for, Ohio is ranked dead-last in Bush approval, with just 41 percent approval and 46 percent disapproval..
Another intriguing finding is an apparent narrowing of the “religiosity gap”–that is, the tendency for those who attend church more often to vote Republican with far greater frequency than those who attend less often. According to the Pew data, the gap in Bush support between those who say they attend church every week and those who attend seldom or never is now 14 points, compared to 27 points in the 2000 VNS exit poll.
Who knows if this will hold up in this year’s election, but it’s food for thought. After all, we have not always had the relationship observed in 2000 between church attendance and support for Republican candidates. For example, in the 1980’s, there appears to have been only a weak relationship between church attendance and Republican support. But that relationship became quite noticeable in 1992, strengthened in 1996 and strengthened some more in 2000.
Who’s to say that relationship might not start heading in the opposite direction? Despite Bush’s best efforts, he has had little success inflaming the culture wars and we are now 4 years past the sex scandals that dogged the last years of the Clinton-Gore administration. Keep an eye on this one as we head toward November.

3 comments on “Why Isn’t Kerry Farther Ahead?

  1. Mike on

    This column shows the problem with relying too much on data and historical parallels. Kerry supporters, like Kerry himself, should not feel secure that Bush’s approval is so low. Even at this point in his campaign he should be running away with the election. By playing it “safe” and running a hard centrist campaign Kerry is clearly expecting to win by default given the level of disgust towards Bush (Kerry wants nothing to do with “liberals” or liberal issues. It’s a joke, considering this, that so many liberals are running into his camp and berating Nader.) The problem with this (Kerry not being able to distinguish himself from Bush. Kerry is farther to the right than Bush on the war!) is that given certain circumstances (another terrorist attack in the US, the capturing of Bin Laden, an upward swing in the economy) Bush can benefit. Kerry has no clear strategy. That’s why he isn’t running away with the race and that’s why he may lose. He really epitomizes the problem of the Democratic Party. They are more concerned with launching wars and perpetuating corporate greed. Nader and Camejo are right.

  2. Dan on

    It’s not that hard if you look at this as an asynchronous two-stage process. Voters are close to making up their minds about Bush and his job approval numbers show this. But voters haven’t come close to making up their minds about Kerry.
    I’ve had lots of frustrating conversations with friends who are willing to admit that Bush is incompetent across the whole range of issues. But these people will still not accept that Kerry has made his case. So they’ve gone from the Bush column to the undecided column.
    However, this will change at the convention. Voters know that there are real problems with the incumbent. At the same time, they’re waiting to see the challenger introduce himself. Frankly, the comparison I would make is with Bush I. He was behind Dukakis in the race going into the convention. Then he gave his Kinder/Gentler speech and didn’t look back. People waited (women especially) until he said what they wanted to hear.
    I’m not saying that Kerry has hired Peggy Noonan yet, but I’ve resigned myself to wait until the convention.

  3. laura on

    The polling info, while reassuring, doesn’t answer the question. Why isn’t kerry farther ahead? This is worth asking and worth investigating. Don’t people like him? Are Bush’s ads working? Isthe half the public still under the impression that we are fighting an evil dictator who had WMD and ties to Osama? Don’t ordinary voters know about the 500 billion dollar debt and the tax cuts for the rich?What’s with all these idiots who plan to vote for Bush?


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