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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Last-Minute GOP Spin

ABC’s Note today reports that despite widespread agreement among pollsters that the presidential contest is too close to call nationally, and too close to call in the key battleground states, the Bushies are exuding more confidence than they were a week ago. Their reasoning, at least publicly, is that the Osama video has changed the dynamics of the race at the perfect time for Bush, reminding voters that the bad man still wants to kill us all.
I have no way of knowing if they really believe this stuff, but I do know that Karl Rove and company strongly believe in the self-fulfilling prophecy theory of acting like a winner before and after the polls close. And I also know they are playing into the media Conventional Wisdom that the last-minute disclosures about Bush’s Maine DWI erased the Republican’s lead in the final stages of the 2000 campaign.
Most of the evidence I’ve seen (sorry, no links here, since the polling and analysis is mostly long gone on the internet) suggests that undecided voters down the stretch in 2000 broke towards Bush, not Gore, and that Gore’s strong finish was attributable to a big advantage in the ground game that polls didn’t and couldn’t pick up, reinforced to some extent by Gore’s reluctant decision to finally begin campaigning on his own administration’s record.
The New York Times’ Kirk Johnson penned a report today suggesting the Osama video isn’t having much of a visible impact, and I’m inclined to agree (Ruy Teixeira reviews the polling evidence and reaches the same conclusion). It will probably come down to the ground game again, along with the tendency of undecided voters to break against the incumbent. Since nobody seems to dispute that Democrats have the most expensive and expansive GOTV operation in American political history, Bush’s chances come down to his elaborate effort to win unpredented margins in rural and exurban areas, based on the 2002 Republican model of demanding personal loyalty to the president, and of accentuating sharp and often false differences between the candidates on national security and cultural issues.
Every incumbent running for re-election uses the trappings of the presidency on the campaign trail, but BC04 has really taken this to a whole new level. I instinctively reject the partisan tendency to attribute un-American and anti-democratic tactics to the opposition, but it’s impossible to avoid smelling the whiff of authoritarianism in the incumbent’s campaign events.
The personal pledge of loyalty to Bush that’s become a staple of his home-stretch rallies is one example. The exclusion of Democrats, the routine taunting of news media, and the tight security is another. And the heavy-handed overtone of patriotic and religious appeals is still another.
I must say that the fervent response to these tactics surprises me. I can understand how some voters can rationally make a decision that Bush has done as well as he can on domestic and international issues, or that Kerry’s record doesn’t make him a desirable alternative. I can understand that some Americans really do believe that abortion is homicide, or that Republicans empathize with traditionalist cultural impulses more than Democrats, or even that Bush as a self-professed evangelical Christian has earned their support by rhetoric alone. There may even be a small percantage of voters who are convinced that erasing progressive tax rates and “starving the beast” of Washington by deliberately engineering budget deficits are valid and important goals. But that George W. Bush, of all people, has become the object of a cult of personality and of intense personal devotion for millions of Americans is harder to understand. Most of the serious conservative ideologues I talk to privately concede the president is a man of limited gifts who has united Republicans behind him as a matter of historical accident more than his intrinsic political or policy skills.
But whatever its provenance, it’s clear the ability of the president’s campaign to break every record of “base” support, while creating a polarized atmosphere essential to justifying extraordinarily partisan election-day and post-election day tactics, is the slender reed on which his whole enterprise now depends. That’s why everybody even remotely connected to the Bush effort will be spinning like mad over and beyond the next 48 hours.

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