It Ain’t Over ’Til It’s Over — By a Long Shot

Posted September 29, 2004 at 4:20pm

On a recent trip to Colorado, a Democratic voter approached me somewhat sheepishly. “So where does the race stand?” she asked, sounding like someone afraid of the answer.

“Bush is ahead narrowly,” I responded, “but the race isn’t over. It’s close.” [IMGCAP(1)]

“It isn’t over?” she asked less than optimistically.

When I reiterated my view that forthcoming events would decide who would win the election, she seemed less than relieved. “Oh, thanks,” she said with the enthusiasm of a condemned man whose execution has been delayed half an hour.

While I know a handful of Democrats who remain confident that Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) will be elected president of the United States on Nov. 2, more and more Democrats I meet are sounding resigned to defeat. They think — prematurely, I believe — that the race is over and President Bush will win a second term.

The Democrats’ growing fear of defeat is based on two concerns.

First, Bush is leading in the polls, and voters increasingly are aware how the race stands in national surveys. If the president is ahead now, after months of campaigning, they conclude (not entirely unreasonably) that Kerry is toast.

Second, and more important, even Democrats can’t seem to warm up to Kerry nearly as much as they’d like to.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted shortly after the GOP convention found that while most Bush voters were going to vote for the president because they liked him, most Kerry voters planned to vote for him because they didn’t like Bush.

A more recent CBS News/New York Times poll found Bush getting 11 percent of Democrats, while Kerry was getting the support of only 7 percent of Republicans.

For Democrats, the closeness of the race — let alone Bush’s lead in the polls — is impossible to comprehend, and that adds to their growing sense of doom.

But it is Democratic voters’ lack of enthusiasm for Kerry that makes them so pessimistic. After all, they reason, if they can’t get excited about the Democratic nominee, why is there any reason to believe that swing voters and the remaining undecideds will opt for the Massachusetts Senator?

Win or lose, Kerry has turned out to be a pretty mediocre candidate.

While many Democrats (and some in the media, especially those based here in Washington) are frustrated that Kerry, and not Bush, has been stuck with the flip-flopper label, the Massachusetts Democrat has no one to blame but himself.

He tried to be too cute on the war in Iraq, and he virtually handed the Republicans the flip-flopper charge by trying to walk a fine line between liberal and moderate, and between Iraq supporter and Iraq opponent.

By the end of this campaign, Kerry may well have set the record for the number of campaign strategies employed by a single candidate during a presidential race.

Kerry began his presidential race as the “bio candidate,” running primarily on his Vietnam and Senate credentials. Late in 2003, he switched to become an “anti-Iraq war candidate,” as he tried to co-opt part of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s (D) message of anger.

He won the Democratic nomination as the “electable candidate,” as he stressed his alleged strength in the general election. Then, he moved onto the economy as his major weapon against President Bush. During much of the spring, he ran as the “jobs candidate,” promising to end the outsourcing of jobs and to get the economy going again.

In July, Kerry became the “optimistic candidate,” as he tried to counter Republican claims that the Democrats were too negative about the country and the future.

Of course, Kerry never fully dropped his “bio candidate” message until September. Until Labor Day, he always fell back on his Vietnam record and his “leadership” to inoculate him from GOP attacks on defense. From mid-September on, he became the “anti-Iraq war candidate.”

But as weak a candidate as Kerry has been, he’s still in the hunt. The president has done a good job defining Iraq as a front in the war on terror, but more Americans think the country is headed off on the wrong track than think it’s headed in the right direction. A majority of Americans aren’t happy with the Bush administration’s agenda or performance, but they haven’t yet decided that Kerry is a better alternative.

The Bush campaign has so far outwitted the Kerry campaign, and Bush is simply a more appealing guy to the average American. (I know that some Democrats won’t agree with this assessment, but they are wrong.)

Voters have twice turned this race on its ear. In December and January, they swiped the Democratic nomination from Dean and handed it to Kerry. In August, they removed the frontrunner label from Kerry and gave it to Bush. I’m not certain they won’t do it again. On the other hand, I’m not convinced they will, either.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.