Democrats Smell Kerry Victory — But It’s Too Soon

Posted May 21, 2004 at 4:21pm

Many Democrats are flying high these days, convinced that Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) is on his way to the White House. Things do look bad for President Bush right now. But the race remains tight.

Top Kerry aides appeared at a breakfast with reporters last Thursday to extol their own strategy, fundraising efforts and advertising messages. The bottom line, in their view, was that Kerry is in “unprecedented” good shape in the polls to score a victory on Nov. 2. [IMGCAP(1)]

Just the day before, the liberal Democracy Corps had released a new poll that it interpreted to mean that Bush is “not only endangered, but … more likely to lose than to win. … Public confidence has collapsed on Iraq. There is a lot of collateral damage, producing a strong desire for change.” The poll found that “Bush has become a 47 percent president at best” and that just 42 percent of voters want the country to continue in Bush’s direction.

At the breakfast, hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, Kerry campaign chief Mary Beth Cahill noted that, as of March 1, Kerry trailed Bush in cash on hand by a margin of $110 million to $2.3 million.

As Bush began launching a massive $75 million ad blitz, mostly to “define Kerry” negatively, she said, the Kerry campaign concentrated on fundraising and now is in a position to mount his own $25 million campaign to identify him as a figure of “service and strength.”

In March, Kerry raised $54.8 million to Bush’s $26.6 million. In April, Kerry raised $30 million to Bush’s $15.6 million. Through April 30, Kerry has raised $115 million — an unprecedented amount for a challenger.

Yet it bears reminding that Bush has raised more than $200 million — most of it last year — and continues to maintain $71.6 million in cash on hand, compared to Kerry’s $28 million.

As the Kerry aides pointed out, it’s clear that Bush has not done — at least so far — what Bill Clinton did to Republican Bob Dole in 1996, which was to bury him in an unanswered avalanche of ads that helped build up an insurmountable lead. As top Kerry pollster Mark Mellman said, “after spending $72 million to destroy John Kerry, [the Bush campaign] has failed utterly. The race has stayed even.”

Mellman goes so far as to believe various polls that show Kerry leading Bush by up to 5 points. “No challenger has ever been in this position before,” he said. And, he added, “no incumbent president has ever been re-elected who didn’t hold a double-digit lead at this point.”

Polling precedent, indeed, sides with Kerry. In May 1972, Richard Nixon led George McGovern by 19 points. In 1984, Ronald Reagan led Walter Mondale by 10 points. But Mellman overstated one race: In 1996, Clinton led Dole by only 6 points, according to Gallup.

Still, it’s true that no incumbent president has been behind his challenger at this stage and won. In May 1976, Gerald Ford trailed Jimmy Carter by 13 points and went on to lose, 50-48. In 1980, Carter trailed Ronald Reagan by 40-32 in May and lost, 51-41.

By this time in 1992, George Bush’s father was actually running ahead of challenger Clinton, 50-39. But Clinton caught up in July and went on to beat Bush, 43-38, with third-party candidate Ross Perot taking 19 percent.

Of course, other polls show that, despite an avalanche of bad news for Bush, Kerry’s big ad blitz and a sour public mood, the race remains close. Even the liberal Democracy Corps poll gives Kerry only a 2 point lead, 49 percent to 47 percent, and just 1 point when Ralph Nader is factored in.

The Democracy Corps’ indispensible rundown of public polls showed that, as of May 9, Kerry averaged 47.2 percent to Bush’s 45 percent. Kerry was tied with Bush in April, but also led in March by 2 points, just as the Democratic primary season was ending.

But there is better news for Bush, too. The latest Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll shows the race at a dead heat, 40-40, with Ralph Nader at 2 percent. In April, Bush was ahead 42-40.

What’s most encouraging for Democrats — and what has to be dispiriting to Republicans — is Bush’s overall public approval rating, a measure that has often been the best predictor of how a candidate does in November.

Almost every poll puts Bush’s approval rating under 50 percent. Fox found 48 percent of voters approving Bush and 43 percent disapproving. Most other polls show disapproval edging out approval: In a CNN/Time poll, 46 percent approved while 49 percent disapproved, and in a Newsweek survey, 42 percent approved and 52 percent disapproved.

Going back to President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, no sitting president has won re-election with approval below 50 percent in May of the election year. Ford’s was at 47 percent in 1976; Carter’s at 38 percent in 1980 and President Bush’s father, 41, in 1992.

By contrast, the winning incumbents posted approval ratings of 69 percent (Eisenhower), 62 percent (Nixon), 54 percent (Reagan), and 53 percent (Clinton).

Democrats also express optimism that the country’s mood could help their cause. Various polls show that more than 60 percent of voters are dissatisfied with the way things are going, and voters are now almost evenly divided on whether the war was worth waging.

Bush is not even getting credit for the improving economy, with voters disapproving of his economic performance by a 56-41 margin in the Gallup poll. The Fox poll found a surprisingly high 49 percent saying that economic conditions are getting worse, and only 31 percent saying they are getting better.

Bush campaign strategists say that the bad news from Iraq — which has been dominant on the nation’s front pages — has made voters gloomy about every aspect of life, including the improving picture on jobs.

Kerry strategist Mike Donilon said that, having endured months of negative economic news, voters don’t yet believe that the economy is improving. He said they’re also looking at rising health care costs as a crucial economic consideration. He also could have mentioned rising gas prices.

So, is Bush toast? I don’t think so. Despite all the negative news pouring in on Bush, I believe the race is still tied. Eventually voters will realize that the economy is improving. Voters also consider Bush a strong leader, while Kerry flits with the wind.

Ultimately, it all comes down to Iraq. I believe that Iraqis fear the consequences of America’s defeat more than they hate our occupation — and that because of this, our situation will improve. But if not, Bush is poised follow his father into political oblivion.