‘The Kerry Surge’: Don’t Snicker — It Might Happen

Posted September 15, 2004 at 3:53pm

Back in early June, I penned a column predicting a Bush surge, even though I noted there was no evidence that one was building. [IMGCAP(1)]

Well, it took longer than I expected, but that surge finally started to develop shortly after the Democratic convention. Recent poll data confirm that the president has benefited from a full-fledged surge.

President Bush has gone from embattled incumbent underdog to surprising frontrunner as Americans have started to evaluate the presidential candidates in terms of their ability to lead the fight against terrorism. Republicans are energized, while Democrats are criticizing the campaign of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).

Seems like the perfect time for me to predict a Kerry Surge.

As was the case with the Bush Surge, I have no data to warrant such a prediction, nor has any evidence emerged that a Kerry Surge (or Comeback or Rebound, if you prefer) is under way. But I think we’ll see some sort of tightening of the race before Election Day.

Mind you, I’m not saying Kerry will (or will not) overtake Bush and win the White House — just as in June, when I predicted the Bush Surge but didn’t assert that it would carry him to victory. For now, all I’m certain about is that there will be a flurry of media excitement — and probably even some polling — about a Kerry Comeback.

Bush has had a terrific six weeks. Starting shortly after the Democratic convention, his numbers began to improve, and unlike Kerry, Bush had the kind of convention that apparently changed the way voters view the presidential race.

Plus, of course, Kerry’s campaign has seemed to be in total disarray.

The Massachusetts Senator has been made to look like a flip-flopper who is untrustworthy on the most important issue of the day (or maybe of our times). His campaign is widely criticized even by people I meet who don’t follow politics all that closely. That tells you something about how far into the conventional wisdom that criticism has progressed.

But Bush’s positioning is not so strong, nor are Kerry’s prospects so bleak, as the current polls suggest.

The president’s job-approval rating is still only around 50 percent, and many surveys continue to show that a plurality of voters believe the country is headed off on the wrong track. Bush’s current strength depends heavily on the public’s belief that he is the best person to lead the country’s war against terrorism.

But much of that sentiment apparently stems from the GOP convention — and the more that event recedes into history, the greater the opportunity for Kerry and the Democrats to change the nation’s assessment.

Over the next few weeks, Kerry will have an opportunity, particularly during the debates, to change the electorate’s focus and its impression of the candidates. And the domestic and international events that unfold between now and Nov. 2 could also help change the current course of the campaign.

But the main reason why a Kerry Rebound is likely is that whichever presidential hopeful is trailing in the campaign’s final weeks often closes in the final days. President Gerald Ford closed in on challenger Jimmy Carter in 1976 and came up just short of a miraculous comeback. In 1988, Michael Dukakis cut George H.W. Bush’s margin almost in half during the final 10 days of the race, and Al Gore pulled even — or ahead, depending on your point of view — with George W. Bush four years ago during the final week.

Given how evenly this nation is divided, it is still difficult to imagine either presidential hopeful fashioning a 6-point to 8-point victory, which is what the president is holding in most national likely voter surveys.

Yes, I know: Incumbent presidents either win handily or are defeated handily. They don’t win close ones.

To that assertion — which, I’ll admit, seems eminently reasonable — I offer the following retort. The current political environment isn’t anything like what we saw before 2000. Comparing the 2004 political landscape with the one that existed in the 1980s or ’60s is a little like comparing women’s sports today with women’s sports in the 1940s. It really is apples and oranges.

Bush’s lead in most of the recent surveys is based on a strong Republican bias in the “likely voter” sample. That bias results from greater Republican enthusiasm, and reflects Kerry’s weakness.

Over the past few days, Kerry has turned to more traditional Democratic themes, including gun control and alleged Republican insensitivity toward the black community. This may or may not indicate a turn to the left that would motivate the party’s base — as both Dukakis and Gore did in ’88 and ’00, respectively — but even if it doesn’t, Kerry is likely to take steps to energize his base over the next few weeks.

Unfortunately for Democrats, even a Kerry Surge does not guarantee a victory. The Republicans have successfully defined him in an unflattering way and have made the contest a referendum on the war on terror. And under those terms, Kerry is in big, big trouble.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.