The Election Is Senator Kerry's To Lose
May 9, 2004
By John Zogby
I have made a career of taking bungee jumps in my election calls. Sometimes I havent had a helmet and I have gotten a little scratched. But here is my jump for 2004: John Kerry will win the election.
Have you recovered from the shock? Is this guy nuts? Kerrys performance of late has hardly been inspiring and polls show that most Americans have no sense of where he really stands on the key issues that matter most to them. Regardless, I still think that he will win. And if he doesnt, it will be because he blew it. There are four major reasons for my assertion:
First, my most recent poll (April 12-15) shows bad re-election numbers for an incumbent President. Senator Kerry is leading 47% to 44% in a two-way race, and the candidates are tied at 45% in the three-way race with Ralph Nader. Significantly, only 44% feel that the country is headed in the right direction and only 43% believe that President Bush deserves to be re-elected compared with 51% who say it is time for someone new.
In that same poll, Kerry leads by 17 points in the Blue States that voted for Al Gore in 2000, while Bush leads by only 10 points in the Red States that he won four years ago.
Second, there are very few undecided voters for this early in a campaign. Historically, the majority of undecideds break to the challenger against an incumbent. The reasons are not hard to understand: voters have probably made a judgment about the better-known incumbent and are looking for an alternative.
Third, the economy is still the top issue for voters 30% cite it. While the war in Iraq had been only noted by 11% as the top issue in March, it jumped to 20% in our April poll as a result of bad war news dominating the news agenda. The third issue is the war on terrorism. Among those who cited the economy, Kerry leads the President 54% to 35%. Among those citing the war in Iraq, Kerrys lead is 57% to 36%. This, of course, is balanced by the 64% to 30% margin that the President holds over Kerry on fighting the war on terrorism. These top issues are not likely to go away. And arguably, there is greater and growing intensity on the part of those who oppose and want to defeat Bush.
The Presidents problem is further compounded by the fact that he is now at the mercy of situations that are out of his control. While the economy is improving, voters historically do not look at indicators that measure trillions and billions of dollars. Instead, their focus is on hundreds and thousands of dollars. In this regard, there is less concern for increases in productivity and gross domestic product and more regard for growth in jobs and maintaining of health benefits. Just 12 years ago, the economy had begun its turnaround in the fourth quarter of 1991 and was in full recovery by spring 1992 yet voters gave the Presidents father only 38% of the vote because it was all about the economy, stupid.
The same holds true for Iraq. Will the United States actually be able to leave by June 30? Will Iraq be better off by then? Will the US be able to transfer power to a legitimate and unifying authority? Will the lives lost by the US and its allies be judged as the worth the final product? It is difficult to see how the President grabs control of this situation.
Finally, if history is any guide, Senator Kerry is a good closer. Something happens to him in the closing weeks of campaigns (that obviously is not happening now!). We have clearly seen that pattern in his 1996 victory over Governor Bill Weld for the Senate in Massachusetts and more recently in the 2004 Democratic primaries. All through 2003, Kerrys campaign lacked a focused message. He tends to be a nuanced candidate: thoughtful, briefed, and too willing to discuss a range of possibly positions on every issue. It is often hard to determine where he actually stands. In a presidential campaign, if a candidate cant spell it out in a bumper sticker, he will have trouble grabbing the attention of voters. By early 2004, as Democratic voters in Iowa and elsewhere concluded that President Bush could be defeated, they found Governor Howard Deans message to be too hot and began to give Kerry another look. Kerry came on strong with the simplest messages: Im a veteran, I have the experience, and I can win. His timing caused him to come on strong at the perfect time. As one former his Vietnam War colleague of told a television correspondent in Iowa: John always knows when his homework is due.
Though he is hardly cramming for his finals yet and is confounding his supporters, possible leaners, and even opponents with a dismal start on the hustings, the numbers today are on his side (or at least, not on the Presidents side).
We are unlikely to see any big bumps for either candidate because opinion is so polarized and, I believe, frozen in place. There are still six months to go and anything can still happen. But as of today, this race is John Kerrys to lose.
John Zogbys column appears in the St. Louis and Washington Business Journals.