Tuesday, October 19 2004
With two weeks until Election Day, we're in the final stretch. There is enough evidence for partisans on both sides to point to why their respective candidate will win on November 2. Bottom line: Bush is ahead and continues to hold the superior hand, but Kerry cannot be counted out.

Contrary to much of the punditry you may have seen or heard this has always been George W. Bush's race to lose - and it remains that way today. It has always been my belief that 9/11 and the War on Terror changed the national political landscape to give the Republicans and President Bush a structural advantage, particularly in the first Presidential election post-9/11.

The early signs of trouble for Senator Kerry began to appear in the summer (ironically when many were beginning to write Bush off) when Kerry could not move out to a bigger lead than 2-3 points. Throughout this entire campaign Kerry has never been able to get ahead by more than three points in the RCP Average, and he has only had a lead over 2.5% three times: in mid-May at the height of the media frenzy over Abu Ghraib, right after the Edwards pick in early July, and right after his convention in early August. None of these leads lasted more than a few days. Senator Kerry should have been registering leads between 5-10 points after his convention and VP pick, not 2 1/2 points.

For nearly an entire year (starting back at the beginning of the Dem primary race) Bush's opponents and the left-wing 527's had been pounding the President furiously, on top of the daily media drumbeat of the "disaster" in Iraq. All of this negativity directed at the President succeeded in driving down Bush's Job Approval rating and the right/direction wrong direction numbers, but it didn't succeed in turning this President into Jimmy Carter. As I've said before, despite this ferocious onslaught, Bush's Job Approval bottoming out in the mid-40's was actually a positive for the President and a sign of his underlying strength with the electorate, not a weakness.

With Bush's Job Approval finding a floor in the mid-40's and Kerry unable to ever move ahead by more than 2-3 points, the Democratic ticket was extremely vulnerable to counterattack. So in August, when Republican 527-money turned their guns on Senator Kerry, specifically with the swift boat/post-Vietnam protest stories, Kerry began to absorb some serious body blows.

Republicans were extremely successful in driving up Kerry's unfavorables during the month of August, and this led right into the Republican convention where the spotlight was put squarely on 9/11 and the War on Terror. The end result was that as September rolled around President Bush opened up a 5-7 point lead in the RCP Poll Average, a margin he held for 28 consecutive days.

Faced with being completely knocked out of the race, Kerry was able to get back in the game with a win in the first debate on September 30. In four days days after that debate Kerry was able to pull within 1-2 points of Bush in the RCP Average. That 1-2 point Bush lead basically held steady through the final debate in Arizona last week. Since last Wednesday's debate, Bush has tacked on a few points and this morning leads by 3-4 points in both of the RCP Poll Averages.

So where does that leave us? The President's Job Approval appears to have stabilized around 50%, with the latest from Gallup, (the most important as far as job approval) indicating 51% approval. While the press makes a big deal about Bush being below 50%, it is probably the Kerry campaign that should be more concerned with that 50% number. Bush can win with a Job Approval at 47% or 48 %, but Kerry doesn't have a chance if the President's Job Approval is at 52% or 53%.

Back in April I wrote:

As a crude measuring stick for the state of the presidential race, an over 50% job approval for the President should translate into a Bush victory. A 45% - 49% job approval will mean a close race, but I would give President Bush the advantage.

I think these parameters roughly still hold true. At 49.5% in the RCP Average Bush is right on the cusp of where he needs to be to put this race away. However, on the cusp of victory is not quite the same thing as winning, and at this stage I would ratchet up the 45-49 leaning Bush range to 47-49. If the President's Job Approval were to fall to 45 or 46, as measured by the RCP Average, I think we would be looking at a dead heat race, with the momentum clearly favoring the challenger Kerry.

As things stand today, Kerry can't tolerate any more movement towards Bush in the national horse-race numbers or the President Job Approval. Trailing 3-4 points nationally and a Bush JA at 49.5% is absolutely the most Kerry can trail by and still hope to have a chance on Election Day.

However, the reason Kerry still can win with these type of numbers is because Bush is having a difficult time getting over 50% in most of the polls. The risk to the President is the undecideds come out to vote, and vote disproportionately for a change with Senator Kerry. Larry Sabato suggested last week he was "tempted to argue that Bush actually needed his full 5 to 6 percent September lead to insure a narrow victory."

I would disagree with that and suggest that unless there is strong momentum towards Kerry at the very end I think Bush will not underperform his RCP Poll Spread in the final results. What I mean by that is if the President leads by 2-3 points in the final RCP Poll average, I think he will win by at least 2-3 points. In other words I don't think the President needs a poll cushion going in to Election Day. Again, that is assuming there is not a strong final break towards Kerry, like the Bush DUI and the late break for Gore in 2000. For example if Bush is ahead 4-6 points with a week to go, but in the last three days that closes to only 1-2 points, that 1-2 point lead very well might not hold up.

The reason I think Bush will meet or exceed the final poll spread is:

1) I wonder whether there is a little bit of the Howard Dean phenomena with all the "energy" and young voters, and all the "new" people who are supposedly going to come out and put John Kerry in office. We heard this type of talk with Howard Dean earlier this year and when it came time to deliver, it was just that, a lot of talk.

2) I don't think the Black vote is going to come out in the type of numbers Senator Kerry is going to need. African-Americans certainly don't like President Bush, but they are unenthusiastic about Kerry and that will hurt the Democrats on the margins.

3) The GOP learned a hard lesson in 2000 when the Democrat's GOTV effort just crushed the Republicans. The GOP adapted and instituted their 72 hour plan which was extremely effective in 2002, and I suspect that will provide a powerful assist to the President, and could be worth as much as 1-2 points on Election Day.

All three of these issues are about turnout, and at this stage this is what the race is going to come down to in the end. Will the President's base simply overpower Kerry's and render the small number of undecideds a non-factor or will Kerry get the undecideds to break his way, and more importantly will he get enough of them to the polls on Election Day to offset the President's lead in the polls and Bush's more enthusiastic base?

I like the President's position, but Bush supporters should be wary. Kerry has kept within striking distance in the critical battleground states and any late movement for Kerry is all this race will need to be a dead heat going in to Election Day. J. McIntyre 11:48 am Link | Email | Send to a Friend


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