Kerry And The Polls
Thanks to PollingReport.com for the graphic
There has been much gnashing of teeth lately over John Kerry’s slip in the polls against Bush. I admit that I have felt some disappointment about the upswing in Bush’s numbers at a time when the Administration was buffeted by bad news from Iraq and the 9/11 Commission. But in considering these developments further against the backdrop of the questionable March jobs report, the advantages of incumbency, and a 6-1 advantage in media expenditures, along with the fact that this is only April, I feel in retrospect that Kerry is not in a bad place, and he is doing fine in the daily tracking polls that our GOP friends like to cite so much. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t warning signs and lessons to be learned here, and I present several of these now.
Money, Media, and Incumbency: Although I and others were too quick to dismiss the effect of the $55 million barrage upon Kerry’s favorable ratings, it now appears that the initial assault worked well enough to move some swing and wavering GOP voters back to Bush or at least undecided while driving up Kerry’s negatives. As I said before, this is standard operating procedure for Rove, so it should not have come as a surprise for Shrum and Company but it did. Plus, Kerry is having a hard time getting media coverage because cable TV is being orchestrated by Rove to cover Bush’s every move regardless of its news content. Kerry has to find a way to break through by making news of his own and force the media to cover it (more on that later). The downside for Bush is that he has spent so much money so fast that Kerry through his fundraising and that of the 527’s will be competitive with Bush the rest of the way. Yet Kerry is just now coming out with his major media counterattack, after weeks of allowing Bush to define him without response, thereby blowing a major opportunity to introduce himself to voters just now paying attention.
Issues: Kerry still hasn’t settled on the 3-4 issues he will use to convince voters that they need to toss out an incumbent, and finds himself jumping all over the place seemingly in reaction to what Bush does, instead of going with a Tier Two strategy of using surrogates to hammer Bush on his weaknesses while setting his own agenda. When he does come out with issues, they are either poorly thought out (the corporate tax cut/outsourcing plan) or timed for failure (the deficit reduction plan that got washed out by Iraq developments). Plus, issues aren’t introduced and then hammered for at least a week at a time. It’s almost as if the campaign wants to get the issue papers out in the public domain so that they can come back to them later, without seeing that the media won’t cover something if you yourself walk away from it after a couple of days. Again, what are the 3-4 issues that you will stay with and maintain message discipline with throughout the campaign? Hell, four tenths of the public still thinks we are in a recession, and things are not getting better any time soon, so it isn’t as if Bush will have a monopoly on good news until November.
Lack of a Killer Instinct: Not only is this tied to the lack of a Tier Two campaign, but the Shrum operation mirrors the caution of its own candidate way too much. Sure, in hindsight should Kerry have made more of a big deal about Bush’s problems in Iraq and with the 9/11 Commission while those issues were hot? Yes, but again it should have been a coordinated surrogate campaign doing the attacking and not Kerry. This would have kept the media spotlight on the problems for Bush for several news cycles longer. Plus, Shrum and Company don’t have a taste for the Carvillian jugular. In the last two news cycles, the RNC and Bush campaign have actually had the gall to call into question Kerry’s combat medals and valor, when the closest Bush ever came to a wartime injury was falling off a barstool in Mobile. A truly cutthroat political operation, in responding to the smears, would not have released the records late in the day to the Associated Press. A true political killer would have called a news conference in Washington when the records were assembled, and had war veteran surrogates (Wesley Clark and Max Cleland) present the records, with a background assist from John McCain, and then gone on the attack against Bush at the press conference for not yet releasing his National Guard records as he promised to do months ago. Then the campaign would stick with this line of attack, and would have mixed in Bush’s sorry record on veteran’s issues and lack of combat equipment for our troops. There is hope in the campaign’s efforts tomorrow to put Bush in a bad spot on lobbyists and ethics, but this isn’t an issue with a lot of long-term traction, at least not yet. A similar effort on energy and the environment would yield bigger dividends.
John Edwards: Face it, when they were being talked about as a team for several weeks, there was excitement in the media and fear at the White House as polls showed that a Kerry/Edwards ticket would beat Bush/Cheney by more than the margin of error. Although I subscribed to the theory that Edwards wasn’t ready and didn’t bring anything to the ticket that a Bill Richardson or Dick Gephardt wouldn’t also bring, after seeing Kerry deal with Bush/Cheney and the surrogates by himself for four weeks it becomes clear that their synergy and Edwards’ energy and “Two Americas” message helps Kerry a great deal. They compliment each other more in style and message than any geographic benefit Kerry may derive from picking up Edwards. Kerry needs Edwards out on the trail as the sunny attack dog to compensate for Kerry’s serious but damn well-qualified portfolio. Besides, just getting the media and activist excitement back will count for a lot, as Kerry by himself can’t do it. There may be other running mate candidates who can do this also, but Edwards would be a great start.
Anyway, let’s not despair too much about the polls just yet. As some of you have said, it’s only April. Now, if only Shrum could ditch his ego and poor track record, and succeed in positioning Kerry as a centrist….