Questioning Conventional Wisdom

The Democrats seem to relish pointing out that undecided voters tend to break against incumbents, a point that is generally true for most US elections.

On the other hand, Captain Ed notes that one survey indicates the opposite may be true for 2004. Granted, his evidence is anecdotal, but the evidence makes sense.

According to GOP pollsters at Fabrizio McLaughlin & Associates, the typical undecided voter is largely indistinguishable from a typical Kerry voter. They note that Bush should focus on the “approval gap” voters – those who support Bush in theory, but haven’t made up their mind to vote for him.

On the other hand, the effect of the 9/11 Democrats should not be discounted. I’ve long theorized that this group of voters will be the deciding factor in this race, and given that most polls show this race is a virtual dead heat (with the Gallup and Rassmussen polls both show Bush and Kerry jockeying for position in the 47-48% range) any advantage could be a key one.

The thing is that a 9/11 Democrat would look an awful lot like a Kerry voter. They’d tend to be socially liberal but focused on the war – think Roger L. Simon or Michael Totten. They may support abortion and gay marriage, but they see Kerry as being weak on national defense. They may not even have any great love for Bush – I have a feeling that many Democrats and even some Republicans may decide at the last minute to hold their nose and vote for Bush even if they don’t like him personally based on what they see as the most important issue not only for this election, but for this generation. The impact of the terrorism issue cannot and should not be discounted as a political force operating just under the surface of this election.

While the plural of anecdote is not data, I’ve met plenty of 9/11 Democrats myself – people who aren’t diehard Republicans or even particularly conservative who are actively put off by Kerry’s proclamations about fighting a more “sensitive” war. Even if this segment of the population represents only 1-2% of the electorate, it could mean enough of a margin to put Bush back into office.

Moreover, these voters would look like Kerry voters on the surface. If the analysis is correct and these people are largely in the Kerry camp, but haven’t committed to voting for him, the logical question that follows is why? What is causing these voters to withhold their support? If it is Kerry’s position on the war, it could very well explain why we’re seeing this sort of behavior in polls.

This also raises the question of if the adage that undecided break for the challenger is actually applicable for this election. The last election in which there was an incumbant running against a challenger was 1996 – and since Dole was down from the beginning that’s not necessarily the strongest comparison. Yet in that election many undecided voters did break for Clinton, even if they were holding their noses in the ballot booth. 1992 was a battle between a charismatic challenger and a weakened opponent – while Bush may be weakened politically as his father was, Kerry is no Bill Clinton. 1984 was another electoral slaughter, and the last election in recent political history in which a challenger beat an incumbant was in 1980 with Ronald Reagan.

The commonalities with these races is that in every case the challenger was much more charismatic than the incumbant. Carter was weakened severely by economic malaise and the Iranian revolution. George H.W. Bush was facing an economy that was in a late-term recession. The current President Bush has the benefit of an economy that is shaky, but improving, and a situation in which the long-term trends generally benefit him. While the voters perceptions of the war and the economy tend to be negative, the perception and the reality are two different things.

In other words, correlation does not equal causation. Yes, generally undecided voters break for the challenger, but that may be less a political constant than it is a function of having a charismatic challenger against a weakened incumbant. That isn’t the case here – Kerry does not have the personal magnetism and charm of a Bill Clinton or a Ronald Reagan or he’d have a double-digit lead coming out of his convention.

Kerry has been unable to articulate a consistant vision for his candidacy. His convention bounce was small at best. Bush has yet to have his convention, and there’s over two months before Election Day in which anything could happen. Bush isn’t in a strong position by any means, but the fat lady isn’t singing either.

What Bush needs to do is set down a positive agenda at the convention, reassure voters, and continue to use that agenda to hammer Kerry in the debates. Remember that in likability, Bush wins hands down, and Presidential debates are as much about style and perception as they are about substance. Bush has several opportunities to turn the political tides, as well as the benefit that world events are likely to work towards his favor. The only poll that really matters is the poll on Election Day, and that poll can easily run counter to the conventional wisdom.

4 thoughts on “Questioning Conventional Wisdom

  1. First of all, you are in error on a couple key points. Bush and Kerry are not in a dead heat in most polls. Kerry is currently beating Bush in the majority of the polls, save for the recently unreliable Gallup. Furthermore, prominent political scientists like Larry Sabato and pollster John Zogby are saying that Bush is in serious trouble. I’m not convinced he’s in as much trouble as they say he is, but I’m far more comfortable with the Electoral College map now than I was in this time in 2000 when Gore was fighting for Michigan and Pennsylvania, which at this point appear to be close to sure things for Kerry.

    Bush’s biggest asset is the public’s frighteningly low expectations for him to do anything right. If horrific headlines continue in Iraq in the months to come, his approval ratings will drop no more than 5%. If the economy has three more abysmal months like July, same situation. If Bush merely shows up for his debates with Kerry and doesn’t call Jacques Chirac the Prime Minister of Egypt, he’ll be unharmed. As Bush as brilliantly been able to do his entire life, he continues to convince the public to set the expectations bar an inch above the ground for him, making everybody cheer wildly when he’s able to step over it….all while letting his handlers rave about how unbeatable the competition is likely to be, thus setting the expectations bar impossibly high for them. With this in mind, Bush has the advantage in the debates.

    The 9-11 Democrats are probably more of a factor than most Dems would like to believe, but are likely to be offset by the independents, who are favoring Kerry by double digits in most polls.

    I don’t like looking at historical precedents to determine election outcomes. Whether or not no Republican has ever been elected without winning Ohio, or whether or not no incumbent has ever been re-elected with approval ratings less than 50% is irrelevant to this specific race. I like Kerry’s chances currently, but what happens in the next 80 days will determine the winner, and it’s largely out of Kerry’s control. Bush has the advantage of seeing his approval ratings rise whenever there aren’t disastrous headlines bearing his administration’s fingerprints, so he’s far from out of this race no matter what Sabato and Zogby say. It should be an interesting ride.

  2. The Gallup poll has been consistant in the last two runs. The chances of Gallup getting a similar result in two separate polls is 400-1. The Rassmussen poll also confirms the results of the Gallup poll within the margin of error.

    Zogby’s polls have been next to worthless lately, as they’ve been statistical outliers in nearly every race.

  3. Jay, polls by CBS, Newsweek, and Rasmussen, just off the top of my head, have shown Kerry leading outside the margin of error, or just barely within the margin. You’re correct that Zogby’s numbers are often suspect given the corresponding micro-data he posts along with his aggregate poll results. Nonetheless, Zogby polls are far closer to the collective poll data than is Gallup of late. If you choose to ignore the sea of unflattering poll numbers and trust that dark horse Gallup is the only one who has it right, then enjoy the purple Kool-Aid.

  4. The CBS and Newsweek polls had a considerable oversampling of Democrats, leading them to be statistical outliers, and the Aug. 16 Rassmussen poll confirmed the Zogby report (although today’s poll shows a divergence of 1% towards Kerry and 1% away from Bush – not surprising for a daily tracking poll).

    It’s still anyone’s game.

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