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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

LA Times Poll: Bush Up In Horse Race, Still Down in Internals

Expect to hear lots of crowing among GOPers going into their convention about a new LA Times poll showing Bush moving ahead of Kerry by 3 among RVs. The last Times poll, held just before the Democratic Convention, had Kerry up by 2, so it’s not a seismic shift, and both leads are within the poll’s MoE.
Moreover, the poll’s extensive questioning on the Swift Boat Veterans ads smearing Kerry’s war service (the poll was conducted in the midst of the ads, and before the current backlash began to develop) does not provide much evidence that this is a significant factor in Bush’s slight boost.
As Ron Brownstein’s analysis of the poll suggests, Kerry’s major problem is that he’s not yet securing the votes of people who are unhappy with Bush’s policies or the direction of the country. “Nearly 1 in 5 voters who say the country needs to change policy direction is not supporting Kerry, according to the poll.” And with a remarkable number of respondents (39 percent) saying they don’t know much about Kerry’s proposed policy agenda, that gives the challenger an opportunity down the stretch. After all, he’s got a 263-page book detailing his policy proposals, while the incumbent has an unpopular record and no second-term agenda so far other than sound bites.
Perhaps the most interesting finding in the poll involves self-identified independents, who split right down the middle (45 percent for each candidate, with 10 percent undecided). Indies think the country is on the wrong track by a 57-31 margin. They favor a “new direction” as opposed to continuing Bush’s policies by a 59-34 margin. They are more likely than voters as a whole to oppose the incumbent’s handling of Iraq and of the economy, and reject, by better than a 5-1 margin, the suggestion that Kerry didn’t really earn his Vietnam war medals.
There are several frustrating gaps between Brownstein’s analysis of the poll and the data made available by the Times. Most notably, Ron reports that Bush is drawing 20 percent of Democrats who call themselves moderates or conservatives. It would be nice to know how they respond to a variety of questions about the two candidates. Brownstein does say Kerry is “suffering his greatest defections among Democrats without college degrees, those who own guns, and those who call themselves conservatives, live in rural areas or are married.” Looks like Kerry’s efforts to reassure voters that he’s no quiche-eater could use a little more work.
The Times also didn’t publish data on undecided voters. But Brownstein says they are “overwhelmingly negative on the direction of the country, the impact of Bush’s policies and the decision to invade Iraq.” In other words, Bush better hold a lead going into October; undecideds are very unlikely to break in his direction.
The bottom line is that this remains a very close race in which the challenger has the greatest potential for gains. The Times poll suggests Kerry can do that if he clarifies his message and agenda, deals with lingering doubts about his party’s values, and crosses the invisible threshold that makes him acceptable to the majority of voters unhappy with the incumbent.

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