June 29, 2004

Too early to say
Posted by Dale Franks

Jon mentioned this morning that it looks like support for Bush's presidential campaign is softening. Now, maybe it is, and maybe it isn't, but I'm not sure it matters one way or another at this point on the calendar.

First of all, 80% of the electorate hasn't paid much attention to the election at all. For most people, the election is something they just don't feel the need to worry very much about until after labor day. During the conventions, interest will start to pick up, then there'll be a steady increase after that.

So, even in normal times, I'm not sure what polls five months out tell us that's particularly useful about the first week in November. But this election is one where events--most of which are totally outside the control of either candidate--will probably be a key factor in what happens on election day. Progress in Iraq, finding a cache of WMDs, a major terrorist attack in the US; any of these things could affect the election spectacularly.

Bush or Kerry might make some horrific political mistake. Back in '72, George McGovern picked a man named Thomas Eagleton as his running mate. Eagleton appeared to have all the right qualifications to be vice president. He was distinguished-looking, he was moderately articulate, and he was breathing. The whole VP package, really.

Unfortunately, it turned out that Senator Eagleton had been "treated" for "depression". Evidently it was a pretty severe case of depression, too, because it turned out that one of his treatments had been electroshock therapy.

Despite the fact that we elected Al Gore as VP 20 years later, at the time the idea of a potential madman becoming a potential president didn't sit too well with most people. McGovern at first tried to defend Eagleton strongly. "I'm not going to drop him as my running mate!" he declared. "Tom Eagleton is perfectly sane!" He then called Eagleton and begged him to drop out of the race, then chose Sargent Shriver as his new, improved running mate.

We all know what happened to McGovern on election day.

In any event, despite Bush's soft support, assuming, arguendo, that his support is soft, Kerry hasn't been much of a barn-burner either. Despite 6 weeks of hideously bad news in April-May, Kerry got a 5-point bump in support. Now, if you take a look at RealClearPolitics.com, where they round up all the poll results, the RCP poll average has Bush at 45%, Kerry at 43.6%, and Nader at 3.6%.

So, despite months of press sniping over Iraq, several weeks of carnage, beheadings, and militia attacks, the lack of any WMD stockpiles, and constant pounding on Bush from the Democrats, the best Kerry has been able to do is pull to within 2%.

That doesn't scream "fundamental strength" when it comes to Kerry. What it tells me is that the campaign is W's to lose. That impression is reinforced by looking at the New York Times, hardly a pro-bush paper, when I see things like this:

Similarly, 45 percent said they had an unfavorable opinion of Mr. Bush himself, again the most negative measure the Times/CBS Poll has found since he took office. And 57 percent say the country is going in the wrong direction, another measure used by pollsters as a barometer of discontent with an incumbent.

Yet the survey found little evidence that Mr. Kerry has been able to take advantage of the president's difficulties, even though Mr. Kerry has spent $60 million on television advertising over the past three months.

Translation: At best for Kerry, this means that the electorate thinks a) Bush sucks and b) Kerry sucks even harder. That tells me that, all other things being equal, the race is still tilting in Bush's favor, despite all the bad news of the last few months.

If, at any time in the next five months, things begin to look better in Iraq, or people begin to get the message about the improvement in the economy--which they surely will if the jobs picture keeps brightening--then this one won't even be close.

The only reason Kerry is still even in the ballpark is because the news from Iraq seemed to be unremittingly bad. If that doesn't continue, neither will Kerry's hopes for getting elected.

UPDATE:

Oh, by the way, Mickey Kaus notes something I completely missed in the NYT piece I quote above. As Kaus puts it:

Soxblog notes that a month ago, the CBS poll had Kerry up by 8 in a head to head with Bush (and up 6 with Nader in the race). This month, the NYT/CBS poll showed Kerry's lead had dropped to a single point in the head-to-head, and Bush was actually winning by a point with Nader included. Kerry dropped seven points in a month. So what do the Times' Nagourney and Elder lead their story with?

Bush's Rating Falls to Its Lowest Point, New Survey Finds

You don't find out until paragraph 11 that the candidates are essentially tied, and only in the 13th graf do Nagourney and Elder slip in the previous months poll results--without pointing out to readers the decline in Kerry's lead.

I think that reinforces my position on Kerry's weakness as a candidate even more.

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Comments

I have to agree with you Dale ... in reality, if Kerry had a chance, he ought to be up by double digits right now.

I've been saying for some time that Kerry has peaked. With all the negative media attention on Iraq and Abu Gharib, Kerry ought to be looking like a lock for the election. As it is, he can barely pull within a couple of points.

If, as Neal Cavuto claims, the public has a tendency to live 6 months in the past as concerns economic matters, they should be feeling pretty good about election time.

And, as Steverino points out, battleground states, at this juncture anyway, aren't looking real strong for Kerry ... and they should be.

Couple that all with the fact that everyday the Kerry campaign seems to lose another avenue of attack because of a better economy, housing numbers, etc. and you essentially have a "I'm not Bush" campaign. We all know those aren't effective.

So yes, its too early ... but in my estimation, and as I've pointed out in the past, Kerry is playing Bob Dole to Bush's Clinton.

Posted by: McQ at June 29, 2004 04:14 PM

Unremitingly bad?
I look for the Democrats to try to pitch Iraq's events to us that way, regardless.

Just as they've been trying to project our economic situation as being worse than the great depression.

And I expect them to have success in the former lie that is equal to the latter lie. Nobody will buy either one.

Posted by: bithead at June 29, 2004 04:27 PM

Good points, Dale. As you say, polls--especially this far out--should be taken with a fairly large silo of salt. Except for rough guidance (i.e., the candidates are relatively close), I generally discount them.

My impression that Bush's support is soft comes from what I read among conservatives and libertarians, most of whom think Bush is neither. Even The National Review has been wishy-washy in their support for Bush. (granted, they'll support him over Kerry every day of the week, but it's fairly obvious they're not big fans)

My impression--and that's all it is, at this point--is that Bush voters are just not highly motivated. Bush may win the polls all year, but if his voters stay home....their support won't translate from the polls to the one poll that matters.

Of course, I could be wrong. You make very good points.

Posted by: Jon Henke at June 30, 2004 05:49 AM

Academics Use Formulas to Predict Bush Win
By Rolando Garcia

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Polls may show the presidential race in a dead heat, but for a small band of academics who use scientific formulas to predict elections President Bush (news - web sites) is on his way to a sizable win.

That's the conclusion of a handful of political scientists who, with mixed results, have honed the art of election forecasting by devising elaborate mathematical formulas based on key measures of the nation's economic health and the public's political views.


Most of these academics are predicting Bush, bolstered by robust economic growth, will win between 53 and 58 percent of the votes cast for him and his Democratic opponent John Kerry (news - web sites).


Their track record for calling election outcomes months in advance has often been surprisingly accurate. In 1988, the models projected Bush's father, former President George Bush, would win even though Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis enjoyed a double digit poll leads that summer.


And in 1996, one model came within a tenth of a percentage point of Clinton's actual vote share.


"You can look at certain fundamental indicators and anticipate how the campaign will play out," said James Campbell, a professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo.


But one glaring error is what the forecasters are perhaps best remembered for: they predicted in 2000 that Democrat Al Gore (news - web sites) would win easily, pegging his total at between 53 and 60 percent of the two-party vote.


This dealt a fatal blow to the models' credibility, said Thomas Mann, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who has written about election forecasts.


"There's really less there than meets the eye, and I get the sense the forecasters will be going out of business soon," Mann said.


These economic-centered models are "irrelevant" for 2004, Mann said, because of the prominence of foreign policy issues and the unpredictability of the war in Iraq (news - web sites).


The forecasters chalk up the 2000 error to Gore's campaign, which distanced itself from the Clinton record. All the models assume the candidates will run reasonably competent campaigns, said Thomas Holbrook, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.


TIME-FOR-A-CHANGE FACTOR


However, the underlying logic of the models is that each presidential election is a referendum on the party in power, and day-to-day campaign tactics or candidate personalities matter less than the general direction of the economy and voters' partisan inclinations, Mann said.


Each model is different, but all have two common ingredients -- an economic variable, such as gross domestic product growth or consumer confidence, and a political variable, such as presidential approval ratings or head-to-head poll matchups.


There is also what Emory University professor Alan Abramowitz calls the "time for change" factor. The models dock a party if it is seeking a third consecutive term in the White House on the premise voters who might otherwise support the incumbent party may want a change in leadership after eight or more years.


On the other hand, the party in the White House usually has a favorable outcome after one term, a complex calculation that works in Bush's favor. Jimmy Carter was the only candidate in the 20th century who was defeated while seeking his party's second consecutive term.


The forecasters add that while voters still give Bush poor marks for handling the economy, that perception may begin to change as the good news begins to sink in.


Holbrook uses an economic indicator from the University of Michigan's survey of consumers. One question asks whether respondents are better or worse off financially than they were a year before. In May, 45 percent said they were better off. That is lower than the all-time election year high of 54 percent in 2000, Holbrook said, but higher than the 39 percent in 1996 when Clinton was re-elected.

Still, the forecasters admit they are much more skeptical of their own forecasts than in 2000.

"It's an intellectual exercise, and I wouldn't bet the farm on these forecasts," Abramowitz said.

Posted by: dan at July 1, 2004 12:32 PM