The recent poll numbers show the possibility that Bush could be soundly defeated.


The superficial evidence is that the Washington Post-ABC poll shows Kerry ahead, 48% to 44% (with Nader at 6% and 2% undecided). But this is not particularly significant because the Pew Research Center Poll and the New York Times Poll, both conducted at about the same time, show the race in a dead heat. (This discrepancy, which reflects the usual inconsistencies among even the most carefully conducted polls, underscores the tenuousness of a 4% lead in the polls this early in the campaign. With four months left, we should see 10% swings one way or the other — or both — between now and the election.)


The really bad news for Bush in these polls lies in the voters’ evaluations of his leadership, and all three polls concur in recording dramatic declines to his lowest scores since 9/11. To cite just some of this evidence, the WP-ABC poll registers Bush’s overall approval job rating at 47%, below 50% for the first time since 9/11. Only losing incumbents have been below 50% at this point, with the exception of the Truman miracle of 1948. His ratings on specific issues are also at low ebbs: his 44% approval on the war is 23% below his score a year ago; and his very low scores on taxes (42%) and prescription drugs for the elderly (40%) means that he cannot campaign effectively on the two domestic issues where he has built a legislative record. Perhaps most significantly the recent good news from the “leading economic indicators” has done nothing to raise his low approval ratings on handling the economy (46%). Adding insult to injury, voters trust Kerry more than Bush to economic policy (50% to 45%), even though over a third of them say that they do not have adequate knowledge of Kerry’s positions on the issues.


In fact, voters trust Kerry more than Bush on all but two issues: terrorism and Iraq. And even on these issues the news is bad for Bush. On terrorism, Bush has lost a 20% advantage in two months to fall into a dead heat; and on Iraq, where Bush has his only lead (50% to 45%), Kerry is far ahead among the voters who deem it the most important issue (60% to 32%).


Nothing that Kerry does will make much of a difference in the campaign


When a President is running for re-election, people vote for or against the incumbent, and they judge the incumbent based on the performance of the country under his regime. By this measure, Bush is in deep trouble, and — as Chuck Todd points out in his astute analysis in the May 13 Washington Monthlylow Presidential evaluation figures at this point in the campaign slowly mature into support for the challenger as voters get to know him better. Since the New York Times reports that fully 36% of registered voters have not yet formed an opinion of Kerry, we can expect him to gain ground, almost by default, as voters discover that he does not have two heads (that is, as long as he does not make any huge blunders). This phenomenon is already visible, since Kerry gained ground in April and May without doing anything, and despite huge broadsides of negative ads by the Bush campaign.


So we may well be looking at the classic losing re-election campaign — unless the Bush team can reverse the current negative opinions about his presidency.


This is why the presidential debates, which were a key moment in the Gore-Bush campaign, are unlikely to have a major impact this year. Debates influence votes when people have not yet formed firm judgments about the race. In that circumstance, they make their decision based on information like debates, which give them a sense of how each candidate might be thinking about the issues. But everyone knows that these debates are largely campaign rhetoric. That is, debates are basically lousy information (and most voters know it), but in situations like the 2000 election, they are better than anything else that is available, especially campaign advertising.


But this year, voters have Bush’s record to judge him by, and nothing he says now can possibly outweigh their evaluation of his administration’s activities. Those who like him will not be alienated by anything that can happen in a debate; and Bush haters could not possibly be won to his side. They will be discovering things about Kerry, but this will matter very little, because the vast majority of voters have already made up their mind whether they want Bush back or not.


This leaves the swing voters, who constitute about a quarter of the voters, according to the Pew Poll which measured them carefully. But, here again, Bush is the one that matters: swing voters, by and large, decide whether or not they want to return the incumbent. If he or she is “good enough” they won’t take a chance with an unproven challenger; if he is not good enough, they only want to make sure the challenger isn’t a disaster. We saw this in the primaries, where the key question voters asked was “who can beat Bush?” And we see it echoed in the WP-ABC poll, where well over half (55%) of all Kerry voters say that they are mainly voting against Bush (a number that is certainly an underestimate, since people do not like to admit that they are lukewarm to their own candidate).


The debates may appear to have an impact because they will be an opportunity for swing voter to evaluate Kerry. Those who are dissatisfied with Bush will want to know that Kerry is not a complete disaster, and the debates might be the occasion when a substantial number of them make this judgment. However, since they will eventually get the same information from other sources, the increases that Kerry might record after debating Bush will only register gains he would have gotten anyway.


The debates will therefore be anti-climactic, since the key issue — voters’ judgments of Bush’s performance — will rest on the success of the situation in Iraq and on the state of the economy. They will probably not have much immediate impact on the polls, but if they do, they will be part of a general drift toward Kerry.


More broadly, there is very little that Kerry can do to affect the results, except if he were to make a blunder that convinced voters he was not competent to be president. This is normally a very hard thing to do; and this year it is even harder (considering the current standard), since Kerry has a decidedly bashful approach to taking a stand on any issue.


Campaign Contributions are not likely to have much impact either


Bush’s $250 million war chest is virtually worthless to him, because the press coverage of the war and the economy is what people are listening to, and they know better than to value a candidate’s promises more than his or her actions.


To put it in monetary terms, his $250 million of purchased TV time is a drop in the bucket compared to the enormous amount of free publicity he is getting from the news media every night. Valued on a per minute basis, his “roadblock” coverage on the Evening News — where the first five minutes (at least) of every newscast are devoted to Iraq and a couple of minutes later on are devoted to the economy — is worth about $10 million per day if that amount of time were purchased. So the evening news alone will drown out his entire war chest in 25 days. By the end of the campaign, the Evening News will amount to well over a billion dollars. If we count all the other news and coverage of the campaign (including televised press conferences, talk show commentaries, daily newspapers, talk radio, etc), the dollar value exceeds $10 billion. But it is actually worth far more than $10 billion worth of advertising because — despite the recent decline in media credibility — people find the news far more credible than political ads.


This multi-billion dollar advertising bonanza for Bush is, however, a double edged sword, because he has no assurance that all this advertising will be positive. If events in Iraq go badly and if the economy goes badly, then Bush will be faced with $10 billion of negative advertising, and it will be very hard for him to win the election.


The race is unlikely to be close enough for turnout to be important


One fear that Kerry supporters have is that his lukewarm personality will dampen enthusiasm among traditional low-turnout groups who are overwhelmingly Democratic. Certainly, Kerry is not doing a good job of keeping some potentially crucial groups interested in the election, notably African-Americans (whose issues he has ignored in a particularly brutal way), and youth (where non-voting is a natural option and lots of those who do vote lean toward Nader).


This would be a substantial problem for Kerry in a very close election, but it is unlikely that this election will be close. Turnout — particularly among a bloc of votes who represent no more than 25% of the electorate — cannot swing an election where the difference is greater than 2%. It is simple arithmetic. Let’s say you target a couple of key groups like African Americans and youth (representing a quarter of the electorate) and you increase the turnout among them from 50% to 60% (something that has only ever been done by major events, never by electoral activity); and let’s say you get 80% of the new voters to vote for your candidate (something that is rarely done). In that highly improbable case you narrow the gap by only 1.5 percentage points. That is, if your opponent was ahead by 51% to 49% this incredibly successful turnout campaign would still not yield a popular victory — your opponent would win by 50.25% to 49.75


Given the current polls, we might expect the election to be close enough to be determined by less than 2%. However, we have to realize that the 2000 election was a fluke, and such a fluke is even less likely when an incumbent is running.


The key pattern we need to appreciate is that voter attitudes are actually very volatile, often moving as much as 10% in a few days. This is reflected in the shifts we have already witnessed: Since March of this year the WP-ABC has recorded a 4% lead for Kerry, then a 5% lead for Bush, and now a 4% lead for Kerry again (and the swings in some of the other polls are much larger). During this period, the candidates have been in a virtual tie (1% or less difference) for about 35% of the time.


In other words, we can only have a really close election when two things occur: we are in the midst of a swing from one candidate toward the other, and the election takes place during the brief moment when public opinion is evenly split. This perfect timing (analogous to the Perfect Storm) has only occurred twice since 1900 — 1960 and 2000. And it has never occurred when an incumbent was running. In the year 2000, therefore, a successful voter turnout campaign by Gore — particularly if it was targeted to key states like Florida, Tennessee and Ohio — might well have won the election (despite the uncounted votes in Florida). But by November of this year, the pendulum will almost certainly have swung toward or against Bush by 6% to 10%.


Iraq and the economy are the key issues


The key factors in this election, the ones that can create swings, are the economy and the war. These are the daily headlines and they will determine the result. This is reflected in the recent polls, where respondents regularly designated the economy as the most important issue, followed by Iraq and then terrorism.


Terrorism is unlikely to have a big impact. Most of the attention paid to it has revolved around the terrorist connection to Iraq, and this means that those who see it as crucial are looking at the success of the Iraq war as a measure of the war on terrorism. Everything will change, of course, if there is a big terrorist event, and then the public reaction may determine the election. If, for example, a new attack on U.S. soil occurs, this could turn the election completely away from Bush, since swing voters might agree with Bush antagonists that the successful terrorist attack meant that the Iraq war had been a distraction from protecting the homeland. Or it could yield a “rally round the flag” response that would lead swing voters to be reluctant to change leaders in the middle of a crisis.


Absent something dramatic, therefore, the economy and the war will be the key issues that determine voters’ attitudes toward Bush and therefore toward the election. If the economy becomes visibly more vibrant, then Bush will get a big boost. But it has to be tangible: more reports that the “leading indicators” are up — or that the stock market has recovered — will not turn the tide at this point. Even the reports that jobs are being created will not work, because these are low paying service sector jobs that do not replace the ones that previously supported a family at middle class levels. What Bush needs is tangible, on-the-ground evidence that those whose lives have been disrupted by the recession are going to recover. This is particularly important in several of the Midwestern “battleground” states which have been hit so hard by industrial decline. The following comment from Patrick McGuire, a sociologist who runs a job program in Ohio, describes the dilemma facing Bush (and also Kerry):


“The job loss has been brutal here and there is no sign of recovery. Part of my job running this center is to work with the economic developers, state and federal officials, and Chambers of Commerce. There is no growth and no hiring anywhere in the Ohio cities. I meet with people running similar centers bi-monthly and the jobs are not being created. Federal money has continued to not flow here, and I think Bush may be in real trouble by November. Unfortunately, the real question will be: ‘do enough people fear or hate Bush so much that they will support Kerry’;’ because Kerry (who has been in this city 4 times since January) has not excited or energized the union or Democratic rank and file.”


This does not mean that Bush can’t get the economic news he needs in time for the election. The situation was put nicely by Peter Galbraith in his June 28 Salon.com commentary: “The outlook…isn’t for another noninflationary boom. It’s for stagflation — the combination of low performance and rising prices some of us dimly remember from the Vietnam War.” Even during the recovery so widely trumpeted by the administration, working people experienced a decline in real wages during the first quarter of 2004. Hence, there is little chance that the economy will become truly vibrant anytime soon. But all this will not matter if the next quarter is prosperous. As Galbraith puts it:


“Will we make up for this in the second quarter, giving Karl Rove his perfectly timed election boom? Six months ago, I’d have said yes. Now, though, one can’t be sure. I’d been figuring on large tax refunds and an ‘echo’ in military spending as the Pentagon restocked its munitions one year after the start of the Iraq war. Are these happening? I don’t know. There are few indicators from the second quarter yet.”


Thus, despite the miserable long term prospects, it is not impossible that Bush will luck into a summer upturn that would shift the swing votes back in his direction.


I believe that this prospect is fairly remote. In the first place, attempts to create short term stimulus to the economy are notoriously difficult to manage, as the failure of the tax cuts demonstrates. Second, even if a boomlet occurs, it might come too soon or too late or too shallow to help Bush in the election. Third, and most important, Americans are extremely wary of any short term economic trends. This is nicely demonstrated by the WP-ABC poll, which showed no improvement in approval rating for Bush’s handling of the economy during either the eight months since the recession officially ended, or in the three recent months of job growth. In fact, despite the absence of a coherent Kerry economic plan, voters see him as significantly more trustworthy in handling economic issues (50% to 45%). Granted, these recent “gains” did not impact directly on the people most affected by the negative economy; but then there is no guarantee that the short term boost that Bush is hoping for will reach them either. If things continue as they are, the economy will weigh heavily against Bush, but it will probably not definitively defeat him.


The situation in Iraq may decide the election


The recent shifts of the swing voters between Kerry and Bush track the news from Iraq very closely: the swing to Bush correlated with the lull in the fighting and the beginning of the run-up to the June 30 transition. The shift back to Kerry coincided with the April insurgencies, the failure of the Iraqi security forces, and the collapse of the image of American invincibility. If the economic news between now and November is no more dramatic than it has been since last fall (and if no big terrorist event occurs), it seems likely that the war will be the key factor in the election.


Well, what about the war? Unlike the economy, the administration might really be able to create real world events that make the war work in Bush’s favor. They are already fully ensconced in such an effort. They backed away from major confrontations in Falluja and Najaf at least in part because the negative publicity might have ruined Bush’s electoral chances. More significantly, the timing of the symbolic “transfer of sovereignty” appears to have been largely a ploy to help Bush’s election chances. This conviction is nicely expressed by Mahmoud Osman, a member of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council: “The important thing for the Americans is to ensure the reelection of George Bush. The achievement of a specific accomplishment in Iraq, such as the transfer of power, increases, in the eyes of the Republican Party, the chances that Bush will be reelected” (quoted in Juan Cole, June 22, 2003).


It’s a longshot, but this strategy is probably the best one available for Bush. The fluctuations in the Bush-Kerry poll results have so far been most responsive to the vagaries of the Iraq situation; and the recent run-up to the June 30th transition worked quite well for Bush’s poll results; it seems logical for him to replicate these successes as the election draws closer. As historian Wallace Katz commented: once the transition is completed, “things might settle down enough in Iraq for Bush to claim ‘stability’ (I don’t think even Rove would want to talk about victory or ‘mission accomplished’ anymore); and some deals could be worked out with both the UN and NATO, which would give Bush the illusion of being multilateral and thus destroy any possible attack from Kerry’s side.”


But Bush is still swimming uphill. As with the economy, the situation in Iraq is fundamentally dismal. The symbolic transfer of power may look good to many voters right now, but that positive image is likely to dissolve with the first set of guerrilla attacks, or the first major battle, or the assassination of one of the new Iraqi leaders, or any of a number of other possible disasters. Bush’s chances depend on quiescence, something that seemed so eminently achievable a year ago, but which seems almost unimaginable now.


Who is going to win?


No one knows, of course, who is going to win; but we can discern some fairly clear signposts. If everything quiets down in Iraq and the economy registers a positive bounce or stays the same, then I think Bush will win handily (by at least 5% and 100 electoral votes). If the economy registers a decline; or if it stays the same but the headlines from Iraq continue to be negative, then I think Bush will lose and it won’t be close (at least 5% and 100 electoral votes).


If things get really bad with either the economy or Iraq, then Bush will crash and burn, maybe as early as September.


In other words, things have to go just right for Bush to win.



Michael Schwartz, Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, has written extensively on Iraq, on the dynamics of popular protest and insurgency, and on American business and government structure.  His books include Radical Politics and Social Structure, The Power Structure of American Business (with Beth Mintz), and Social Policy and the Conservative Agenda (edited, with Clarence Lo). He is currently completing The Rise and Fall of Detroit, which analyzes the dynamics of the automobile industry and the United Auto Workers from 1900 to 1990.


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